Football season comes to an end in North Dakota
Let’s face it: even here on campus, the University of San Diego football team is little more than an afterthought.
Spending Saturday afternoons in a half-empty stadium has seemed to render the Toreros an entertainment option not only for those who can’t make it to the sun-soaked sands of the nearby coast, but also for those who aren’t quite willing to hunker down in their rooms and knock out some homework either.
That sentiment has persisted since the days of a khakis-clad Jim Harbaugh roaming the sidelines some 15 years ago. That is, until this year’s senior class had something to say about it.
You see, for all of the times USD’s pigskin program is overlooked, whether because of their inability to offer scholarships, the lower rung of Division-I football they call home, or the lack of NFL-ready talent that takes the field, there is little doubt about one thing: the boys in blue are on the rise when it comes to gridiron greatness.
18 Toreros earned all-conference honors in 2016. Senior running back Jonah Hodges threatened the school’s rushing record books and took home the Pioneer League’s Offensive Player of the Year Award.
Head coach Dale Lindsey, meanwhile, was named the conference’s Coach of the Year for the second time in his brief four-year career here at Alcalá Park.
And for all of those individual accomplishments, the team’s success as a whole was likely even more impressive. This was a roster that went a perfect 8-0 in conference play, outscoring opponents by a collective score of 343-83 while clinching the program’s fifth league title in six years.
That banner meant the team would also earn an automatic bid to the playoffs, and the Toreros entered the first round as the No. 24 team in the nation.
Tasked with taking down a 21st-ranked Cal Poly team that had beaten them once already in 2016, the cards seemed to be stacked against USD on a rainy, muddy night in San Luis Obispo just days after Thanksgiving. A team still in search of its first postseason victory, however, the Toreros were in no mood to call it a season just yet.
Led by Hodges’ 208 total yard, 3-score performance (including a 171-yard total on the ground that out-gained the Cal Poly Mustangs’ entire top-ranked rushing attack by itself), the upstart San Diego squad opted instead to prove the non-believers wrong, topping the Mustangs 35-21 for not just the first playoff win in school history, but also the first victory by any non-scholarship school in an FCS postseason game.
It was a historic win that caught the attention of many around the country, even if only for a few brief moments. It also, however, left the Toreros with an even tougher challenge on the horizon as they took on the five-time defending champion North Dakota State Bison, a program that not only called the NFL Draft’s No. 2 overall pick its starting quarterback in 2015, but also a team that has won six straight games against FBS schools.
This streak includes a 23-21 victory earlier this season over Iowa, at that time the 13th-best team in the nation.
While the hometown team was able to hang with the herd of Bison for most of the first half, North Dakota State was able to pull away down the stretch, winning 45-7 and ultimately bringing the upstart Toreros’ magical season to an end.
There were some highlights for the USD team; including an impressive toe-tapping grab by tight end Ross Dwelley being chief among them, but the Bison’s superior talent became more and more evident as the game went on, allowing NDSU to stretch their playoff winning streak at home to seventeen games in front of a crowd more than nine times the size that the Toreros typically play in front of.
It was a result that even the most optimistic of Bull Pit backers should’ve expected. And while the disappointment of a season being brought to an end will certainly sting in the short-term, there seems to be little doubt this fall’s campaign will leave a built-to-last legacy here at Alcalá Park as the offseason begins to march towards 2017.
Yes, the team is graduating one of the best running backs in school history and what could be at least three future NFL players in Hodges, wide receiver Brian Riley, and cornerback Devyn Bryant.
San Diego-raised quarterback Anthony Lawrence, one of the most productive quarterbacks in the FCS, will return to lead a squad that already looks like a strong favorite to make a return trip to the playoffs next season.
Success between the lines is the foremost goal of any college football program.
However, this year’s iteration of top-drawer Toreros ultimately accomplished something even more impressive: generating buzz on a campus traditionally apathetic toward the outcomes of its athletic programs’ weekly rendezvous with rivals.
For Alcalá Park natives, studies, social events, and surfing may continue to precede school spirit. In spite of the team’s program-defining success in 2016, it’s possible that not much will change in terms of support for the Toreros and their ongoing accomplishments on the gridiron.
Then again, with a playoff breakthrough against a historic heavyweight here and a third consecutive PFL title there, the boys in blue may have just opened the door for the kind of cultural change this program and this campus have craved for years.
There’s no doubt that USD rosters of the past have won their fair share of games, leading the way in a football conference primarily made up of basketball schools. These 2016 Toreros appear to have finally left a lasting legacy.
Written by Noah Hilton, Staff Writer