USD wins to open PFL schedule

Justin Priest continued his strong start to the season, catching three touchdowns in the win. Photo courtesy of USD Toreros/Twitter

Offense explodes as conference home winning streak extends to 28 games
Through three games, the University of San Diego football team had yet to look like a team that won a share of five of the last six Pioneer Football League (PFL) titles.


After a come-from-behind win against Western New Mexico to open the 2017 campaign, the Toreros struggled through road losses to UC Davis and Princeton.


An offense led by highly-touted quarterback Anthony Lawrence looked no better than average, and a defense that lost starting cornerbacks Devyn Bryant and Jamal Agnew to life after college struggled to slow opposing passing attacks.


After Saturday’s showing, however, it may be that USD’s underwhelming start to the season is finally behind them.


Opening the team’s conference slate against PFL rival Butler University, Lawrence tied a career high with five touchdown passes and threw for 367 yards as the Toreros toppled the Bulldogs 38-17 in front of a crowd of 1,701 baby-blue backers.


“The offense wasn’t really clicking the first few games, and I think I was a big part of that,” Lawrence said. “We started to pick it up [last week] against Princeton, and this game I really feel like we were clicking on all cylinders.”


Head coach Dale Lindsey seconded his star quarterback’s thoughts.


“I thought he was very average for him over the first three games,” Lindsey said. “Today, I think he got his act together a little bit. He wants to excel so bad that sometimes he’ll get upset with himself if he has a pass that’s overthrown or dropped, and there’s no reason for that because he’s doing a hell of a job. We just have to get him to keep focusing and doing what he’s doing.”


Three of Lawrence’s touchdown tosses went to senior wide receiver Justin Priest, who had a game-high nine catches for 148 yards on a day that included several highlight-reel grabs from the northern California native.


“Our whole offense was really going well today,” Priest said. “We have a lot of different weapons that the ball can go to, and today it just happened to come to me.”


The big day continued what has been a strong start to Priest’s final year as a Torero after spending most of his college career as a part-time player.


“The last four years, we’ve had such great players on the field that I’ve just had to accept the role I’ve been given and play that role,” Priest said. “Sometimes it’s not getting the ball every play and other times it is, so you just have to know where you fit into the team and where you can best contribute.”


The offense was also helped by the return of redshirt senior Ross Dwelley, who dislocated his finger against UC Davis but managed to recover quickly enough to return after missing just one game. The physical 6-foot-5, 240-pound tight end, who has drawn some draft attention from the National Football League, finished the day with 101 yards and a touchdown on six receptions.


“It’s incredible,” Lawrence said. “He’s like a safety blanket for the whole offense. Even when he’s not getting the ball, other teams have to respect him so much, because obviously he’s an NFL-caliber tight end, and that opens things up for the rest of the team.”


Priest, who has played alongside Dwelley since the two were in Pop Warner together, agreed with the quarterback’s evaluation of the tight end’s role on the Toreros.


“How can you not be better with him on the field?” Priest said. “I can’t speak more highly about him. You really can’t guard him — he’s too fast, too strong, too big — and his hands are probably second-to-none.”


Meanwhile, the defense adjusted over the course of the game to contain the only weapon capable of helping the opposing Bulldogs to a win.


By the end of the first half, Butler wide receiver Pace Temple had already amassed 130 yards and two scores. From there, though, he was limited to a mere two grabs and 25 yards as the Butler offense stalled for the rest of the game.


“I made a great adjustment,” Lindsey said. “We went after [Temple] because he was the only guy that could beat us. That kid’s a pretty good player, and we knew that coming in. I told the defense though, ‘This guy doesn’t get the ball, and even if he does, he’s going to get hit on every play.’”


Cued by a savvy defensive game plan and an explosive offense, USD never trailed on their way to their second victory of the season.


The win stretched the Toreros’ home winning streak in conference games to 28 games, an unbeaten run that has been a significant factor in the team’s recent success against Pioneer League opponents.


Coach Lindsey attributed a large part of that streak to a conference schedule that often includes trips across the country.


“People don’t understand how hard it is to travel as much as we do,” Lindsey said. “We have to fly across three time zones sometimes. Once we get there, it’s usually 10 o’clock at night, and you have to go to sleep and get your clock right so you can get up and play. It’s tough, and I think you find the same thing when teams come to us.”


The game also marked the first annual Brian Fogarty PFL Classic for the hometown team. The university’s former head football coach, Fogarty played an instrumental role in the Toreros’ acceptance into the Pioneer League in 1993 and spent 34 years as a coach and athletic administrator at USD.


Looking ahead to next week, the Toreros will head to Ohio to face a Dayton team whose only conference loss last season came against USD. The Flyers could have some additional motivation after a surprising single-score loss to Morehead State last Saturday.


“That didn’t help us at all, because they’re going to be mad as hell,” said Lindsey. “But you know, that’s why you play. It’ll be a good game.”
Noah Hilton | Sports Editor | The USD Vista