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Kearney, Neb. – Redshirt junior quarterback TJ Davis threw three touchdown passes and the punt cover team recovered two fumbles to help No. 22/24 Nebraska-Kearney grind out a 35-14 win over Missouri Western State Saturday afternoon at Ron & Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field.
The Lopers (5-1) bounce back from its first loss of 2021 by beating the Griffons (2-4) for the third time in the last four meetings. UNK now leads the all-time series, 19-12.
A Harlon Hill Trophy candidate, Davis had another efficient day passing going 9 of 16 for 171 yards and scoring tosses of 5, 31 and 57 yards. He then ran 24 times for 86 yards and a one-yard run to start the day’s scoring. UNK ended with a 359-256 yard advantage, went 7 of 13 on third down and had the ball for nearly 35 minutes
“We watched Missouri Western on film all week and you look at their scores (four games decided by 18 points), their size, their speed. That’s a very good MIAA football team,” said UNK head coach Josh Lynn. “We were worried coming in just because they are everything an MIAA team is. If you don’t step up and play you’re going to get beat.”
UNK went 47 yards in 10 plays to grab a 7-0 early in the second quarter. The drive featured seven Davis runs and a key pass interference call on the Griffs on 2nd & 8 from the MWSU 18-yard line. Davis scored on 3rd and goal, his 35th career rushing score. QB Jake Spitzleberger (’11) holds the Loper record with 38.
Kearney wanted to make sure the ball didn’t get to MWSU star punt and kick returner Trey Vaval all day, having a series of pooch kickoffs. On the punt return team, he tried to make a play early in the second half and was leaping over a Loper when senior safety Blake Bubak (Columbus) jarred the ball loose and senior outside backer Travis Holcomb (Cairo) recovered it near midfield.
A trick play immediately followed, a double reverse pass that found redshirt freshman corner JerQon Conners (St. Louis) wide open for a 38-yard gain. Three plays the duo hooked up again from five-yards out, a 14-0 lead and a momentum change.
“We have a bunch of (trick plays) and they are a lot of fun to run in practice. In the first half our interior run game wasn’t clicking and we knew we needed a spark. After the turnover, Coach (Drew) Thatcher dialed it up and we executed it. It’s a roll of the dice … it’s either big or a bust. Glad we were on the good side of it.”
Mo West responded with its best drive of the day, a 12-play, 71-yard march led by reserve QB Reagan Jones. He had a 17-yard scramble on 3rd & 12 and then ran almost untouched around the left side for a 25-yard score on 4th & 9. But UNK had a quick counter, using a 14-yard run by redshirt senior back Montrez Jackson (Trenton, Fla.) and a pass interference call to quickly move the ball down the field. A few plays later Davis lofted a 31-yard scoring strike to junior receiver Kylan Herrera (Copperas Cove, Texas) who looked like a center fielder chasing down a long fly ball.
“I was extremely happy the way we grinded it out in the first half. We didn’t get down, kept doing our thing and defense played lights out,” said Lynn. “The big play strike through the air got us some points on the board and then the defense kept getting us back on the field.”
After the defense forced another Griffs, UNK salted things away with another TD drive. Davis found redshirt junior receiver Michael Koch (Columbus) wide open from 57 yards out to start the fourth quarter. The 84-yard drive also featured a couple of 10-yard runs by Davis and Jackson.
While Mo West tacked on another seven points thanks to so more nice runs by Jones, UNK finished the scoring when Vaval muffed a punt inside his own five-yard line with four minutes to go. The loose ball went backwards with redshirt junior corner Gabriel Amegatcher (Romeoville, Ill.) recovering it in the end zone.
“The unsung hero was our special teams play. We didn’t lose anything and also created some scores with special teams,” said Lynn. “The kickoff cover team was solid … we tried to keep it away from their good returner. They didn’t have great field position because of our kickoffs all day.”
Besides Davis, Jackson managed 64 yards on 11 carries and also was one of three Lopers to catch two passes. The others were Conners and senior back Dayton Sealey (Hastings St. Cecilia). Next, redshirt junior punter Hunter Kraus (Sargent) had three of his five attempts land inside the 20-yard line with senior kicker Junior Gonzalez (Corning, Calif.) averaging 48 yards on kickoffs.
The Loper “D” forced the Griffs to punt the first five times it had the ball and then a strip sack by redshirt freshman outside backer Delonte Dickey (Greenwood Village, Colo.) ended the sixth drive right before half. Thanks to Jones late runs, MWSU finished with 171 rushing yards but was 14 of 30 in the air with two interceptions and
allowed three sacks.
Redshirt junior safety Darius Swanson (Aurora, Colo.) had a team-best eight tackles and his second pick of the fall, redshirt junior outside backer Atoa Fox (San Diego) had seven stops including 2.5 for lost yardage with Bubak also managing seven tackles. Finally, redshirt junior end Tell Spies (Mullen), Swanson and Fox had sacks.
“Defense was lights out … I was happy we controlled the front. Our d-line controlled their o-line and that allowed our flat players to get a littler further outside. They were trying to run-pass option us but to do that you’ve got to control the line of scrimmage,” said Lynn. “Great team defense and had them on their heels all day.”
For MWSU, Jones finished with 99 yards and that one score on 12 carries while going 7 of 15 in the air for 53 yards. Starter Anthony Vespo also was 7 of 15 for 41 yards while being sacked twice. Vaval ended up with just 38 return yards with Columbus native Evan Chohon and safety Domanic Chopa tying for the team-lead in tackles (six).
UNK heads to Emporia State next Saturday. The Hornets (3-3) lost at Central Missouri today, 45-38.