LEBANON, Ill. – The McKendree University football team is a work in progress. The Bearcats, who completed their transition from NAIA to the NCAA Division II ranks last year, is playing its first 11-game schedule in school history.
The season got off to an ugly start Thursday night with a 75-14 loss to Ferris State at Leemon Field.
“We obviously have a lot of work we need to do,” said McKendree’s second-year head coach Mike Babcock. “We have a long season and that’s what I tried to tell the guys. It’s just one game and we have to be able to move past it to keep working on the 2014 season.”
McKendree went 4-6 in its first season with Babcock at the helm. Babcock spent the previous five years at Colorado State-Pueblo, where he served as the quarterbacks coach and helped guide Pueblo to consecutive undefeated regular seasons in 2011 and 2012.
Babcock knew the Bulldogs presented a tough challenge. With dropped passes, missed tackles and blown assignments, there were definitely plenty of teaching moments against the Bulldogs.
“We are going to watch every single play and we’re going to look at it from all angles and we’re going to find where the mishaps were,” Babcock said. “Was it coaching? Was it playing? We’re going to find those facets and fix it. Take responsibility for what you did wrong, fix it and move on.”
Ferris State, ranked 21st in the D-II preseason polls following an 8-3 season under head coach Tony Annese, wasted no time getting things going as Jason Vander Laan connected with Shakur Sanders for a 38-yard gain on the game’s second play. McKendree nearly got the ball back following a botched snap, but the Bulldogs were able to fall on the ball.
“Coming into the game, we knew we had a lot of athletic guys coming back and knew we were probably going to be the better team, we just had to go out and execute,” said Vander Laan, who has led the Bulldogs to five straight wins dating back to the end of last season. “It helps to return a lot of guys, so it’s basically the same team as last year.”
Vander Laan later connected with Jamal Jackson for a 19-yard gain to keep the drive alive. That led to a Jackson touchdown run of 10 yards. McKendree blocked the extra point, but Ferris State was still able to get the ball into the end zone for a two-point conversion.
“I don’t know if one or two plays would make or break that game,” Babcock said. “I give a lot of credit to the Ferris State coaches and players. They came in ready to play, executed at a high level and you could tell they were a ranked football team.”
The Bearcats bring back 14 starters, including junior quarterback Isaac Fisher. The Washington, Ill., native was 20-of-29 for 196 yards with a touchdown, but also threw two picks before being replaced by Zane Schmudlach once the game was out of hand. Fisher added 27 yards on the ground for the Bearcats, whose leading rusher was senior Ryan Herring with 80 yards on six carries.
“He played pretty well early on,” Babcock said of Fisher. “He was making good decisions. It was difficult for him to get into a rhythm. When you can’t get into a rhythm as a quarterback, it makes for a long night.
“In the second half, he started feeling a little more frustrated with the overall performance, offensively. I think that’s why there were two interceptions. But he’s got to be able to move past it and complete balls on the next series.”
The Bearcats tried to respond on their first series and went to the air, but Fisher’s short completion to Cameron James was negated because of a holding penalty. Following a pair of completions to James and tight end Reuben Bowlby, the Bearcats were forced to punt. Alex McMahon’s kick was a short one and the Bulldogs took over at their own 34.
Ferris used the running game to set up the play-action and Vander Laan found Jake Lampman running up the sideline for a 39-yard touchdown.
McKendree had a pair of chances to halt the drive, but Jabaree Winston inadvertently knocked an interception away from teammate David Thomas on the third play of the series. Vander Laan later picked up two yards on the ground to convert and fourth-and-1 near midfield.
|Ferris State quarterback Jason Vander Laan accounted for 360 yards
of offense in Thursday’s 75-14 win over McKendree.
“It’s so nice that I can just throw a little bubble and guys turn up the sideline for 30 yards,” said Vander Laan, who accounted for more than 3,200 yards of offense last year and 36 touchdowns. “All of our receivers are just crazy good. We just have to get the ball in their hands.”
Vander Laan ran for 86 yards on Thursday and threw for 274 with four touchdowns on 19-of-26 passing. The Bulldogs ranked fifth nationally in rushing last year and racked up 476 yards on the ground Thursday night.
“We’ve got a junior quarterback who has really grown as a passer,” Annese said of the 6-foot-4 Vander Laan. “We want to be a take-what-the-defense-gives-us kind of team, but we really took that to a new level. Because now we can fling it around and be a vertical pass team, run a lot of quick stuff and be a great run team.”
It took the Bearcats just four plays to answer the score when Fisher hit Dustin Walls for a 50-yard pass. Fisher also picked up 15 yards himself on the second play of the drive.
“Early on, we had some big plays and that’s what we’ve been trying to preach to the offense,” Babcock said. “Being able to throw a long touchdown to Dustin Walls for the first touchdown of his career kept us in the game, at least for a little bit.”
Ferris drove inside the red zone on the next possession, but the Bulldogs defense held and McKendree took over at its own 5. McKendree was forced to punt, but pinned the Bulldogs at their own 12. That didn’t last long.
Two plays later, Jahaan Brown got around the left edge to gallop 59 yards to the McKendree 16. That led to an Antonio Agurs touchdown reception of 12 yards to give Ferris a 21-7 lead with 10:55 remaining in the first half.
A 25-yard Kitwana Clark run helped set up Lampman’s 25-yard reception in the back of the end zone to extend the Bulldogs lead to 28-7. Lampman finished with a game-high 101 receiving yards.
“If there is one guy who I always know where he’s at, we’re on the same page, it’s him,” Vander Laan said of his roommate. “We’re starting to click in the passing game.”
James returned the ensuing kickoff to the McKendree 42 to give the Bulldogs a short field. Herring later busted through the line and outraced the Bulldogs to the end zone for a 45-yard score.
The Bulldogs added to their lead two minutes before halftime on another Vander Laan-to-Lampman pass, this time from 16 yards out. Following a McKendree three-and-out, the Bulldogs got the ball back near midfield and scored on Vander Laan’s 40-yard keeper.
McKendree’s first series of the second half began with a turnover when Troy Smith stepped in front of a Fisher pass to give the Bulldogs the ball at the McKendree 35. Ferris was able to convert the turnover into a 27-yard Mitch Bredberg field goal.
Another Ferris State interception, this time from linebacker Anthony Darkangelo, placed the Bulldogs in prime scoring position again. But a fumble at the goal line kept the Bulldogs out of the end zone. McKendree took over at its own 1 and a Bearcats fumble, which Fisher knocked out of the back of the end zone, gave the Bulldogs a safety to hold a 47-14 lead with 5:58 to go in the third.
|Ferris State coach Tony Annese speaks with his team following Thursday’s
75-14 rout of McKendree University in the season opener for both teams.
Ferris added to its lead to start the fourth on a 38-yard run from Jajuan Pollock. When the Bulldogs got the ball back, sophomore quarterback Trevor Bermingham scored on a 67-yard run up the right sideline. They added another touchdown on a blocked punt, which Jevonte Alexander scooped up in the end zone. A 19-yard Brandan Campbell run with two minutes remaining capped the scoring.
“It’s a great start,” Annese said. “We made a lot of plays in a lot of different ways. We threw the ball effectively, our run game was pretty powerful and the defense created some turnovers and special teams, we blocked a punt and scoop and score.”