Torero football picks up huge in-conference victory
In the always-competitive Pioneer Football League (PFL), one loss within the conference can sink a team’s hopes of advancing to the Football Championship Series (FCS) playoff.
Luckily for the University of San Diego, their win on Saturday, Sept. 24 against the University of Dayton Flyers brought the Toreros’ record against conference foes to 1-0. The Flyers entered the game at Torero Stadium as the defending conference champions and winners of 12 of their previous 15 games. They left with the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths after USD pulled out a 34-22 win in front of 2,119 fans.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Anthony Lawrence overcame two early interceptions to finish with 371 passing yards and two touchdowns. Redshirt junior fullback Tevin Heyward had a pair of one yard touchdown runs after getting a total of just one carry all of last season.
Redshirt senior running back Jonah Hodges also gave the Flyers defense some trouble. He amassed 70 yards on the ground while receiving 23 carries.
However, the University of California, Berkeley transfer made his biggest impact in this game as a receiver out of the backfield. One catch in particular, which came with just over two minutes left in the game, sealed the victory for San Diego and sent Dayton back to Ohio with their second loss of the season.
The Torero offense came to the line of scrimmage with 2:12 showing on the scoreboard and a critical third down facing them. They dialed up a gutsy pass play, hoping to catch the Flyers off guard, but also realizing that an incompletion would stop the clock and essentially hand Dayton a free timeout.
Lawrence rolled to his left and dumped the ball to Hodges short of the first down marker, but with plenty of green grass ahead of him. Hodges did the rest, blazing down the sideline and reaching the end zone on a 62 yard touchdown that took the spirit out of the red-clad Dayton fans that had invaded Alcala Park.
After the game, Hodges made sure to give a shout out to redshirt junior tight end Ross Dwelley for his crucial block that sprung him for the touchdown.
He also explained that he had a strong feeling that the play would work out in his team’s favor.
“I got the ball, I cut back, and I saw that I had a lot of space,” Hodges said. “We had called that play a couple times before, and it’s been hitting. I knew they were thinking it was a run on third down trying to waste the clock, so we got them off guard.”
The Torero defense also shined during this sunny Saturday showdown. They were able to contain Dayton both through the air and on the ground, holding the Flyers to just 227 total yards of offense. By comparison, USD’s offense gained a total of 447 yards. Dayton was also forced to punt the ball eight times. However, it was the Toreros special teams that looked like they might be story of the game and for all of the wrong reasons.
Junior kicker Patrick Murray missed two field goals in the second quarter that could have provided his team with some much needed breathing room. The first miss came on a 33-yard attempt that clanked off the left upright. His next misfire was from 36 yards out.
When the teams trotted to their respective locker rooms at halftime deadlocked in a 7-7 tie, the Torero faithful couldn’t help but lament the fact that their his team could have been sitting on a 13-7 lead had the field goals been true. Murray did convert all four of his extra points.
The other glaring mishap by the Toreros also came on special teams. With 12:29 to play in the fourth quarter, and the home team clinging to a 21-14 lead, head coach Dale Lindsey elected to send his punter Ryan Belden out on the field in an attempt to flip the field position.
Instead, fans watched in horror as the snap sailed through Belden’s hands and onto the Torero Stadium grass.
When Belden scooped up the ball and began running for the first down sticks, he fumbled the ball away. In the blink of an eye, Dayton redshirt senior Chris Hagan had gathered the ball and rumbled his way to a 31-yard touchdown. This put the Flyers in a 21-20 deficit as their kicker William Will sauntered out for what he presumably thought would be a routine extra point to even up the score.
What happened next could only be described as mayhem. Will’s kick was blocked at the line of scrimmage. Never giving up on the play, Will alertly picked up the ball and flung it into the end zone. Miraculously, his heave was caught by tight end Gus Madden.
In a span of roughly five seconds, the Flyers went from kicking an extra point to tie the game to being down a point following the blocked kick to holding the lead after Madden hauled in the chaotic two point toss.
In the end, the bizarre play was nothing more than a footnote in what could be a momentous victory for USD’s football program. The backyard football-esque play by Dayton’s kicker could have broken the Toreros’ back. Instead, Lawrence calmly led his troops down the field on the ensuing drive.
With 6:42 left in the game, San Diego converted a wildly important third down chance on a pass to Dwelley. A little over two minutes later, Heyward was plunging into the end zone to give the boys in blue a 27-22 lead. It was a lead they would never give back.
The magnitude of the win was not lost on Hodges, who is in his final season of eligibility.
Knowing that this season marks his last opportunity to win a FCS playoff game, the speedy running back was all smiles after knocking off his team’s toughest competition in the PFL.
“It means a lot,” Hodges said. “This is a team we lost to last year. They’re always at the top of the PFL along with us. We’re 1-0 [in conference play]. We’re happy with it.”
If the season continues on the trajectory it’s headed, the Toreros will be happy all the way through their PFL schedule.
Written by Matthew Roberson, Sports Editor