It was just a matter of time before John Guilford (Spencer, Ohio/Black River) and the Valparaiso defense made its presence known. On Saturday, the defense assembled one of its best halves in years as a 22-7 halftime deficit was erased and flipped into a 39-30 win over William Jewell inside Greene Stadium in Liberty, Mo.
"There's no doubt this victory was sparked by our defense. They hung in there in the first half and, unlike the game against St. Joe's, our defense got stronger as the game progressed," head coach Dave Cecchini said after the game.
For Cecchini, Saturday represented his first win at the helm of the Crusader football program.
The Crusaders had to overcome plenty of adversity early on. Faced with a 4th and 5 on its opening drive, William Jewell punted away, but was gifted a first down after a roughing the kicker penalty. Valpo's defense again held after three plays, but a well-executed fake punt moved the Cardinals from their own 33-yard line to the visitor's 33. Glen Whitney ran it in three plays later to give WJC a 7-0 lead a little more than five minutes into the game.
William Jewell head coach Jerod Kruse had another trick up his sleeve when he called for an onside kick on the impending kickoff. The Cardinals recovered before putting together a 7-play, 52-yard scoring drive to extend their lead to 13-0. Nick Moffitt (San Diego, Calif./Escondido Charter) got a hand on the extra point attempt to keep it a 13-point tilt.
Once the offense finally appeared, the Crusaders marched downfield to slice into the deficit. Grayson Bastin (Fort Wayne, Ind./Homestead) ran for 34 yards on the following drive, five of which came on a TD rush, and freshman Frank Catrine (Springboro, Ohio/Bishop Fenwick) broke loose for a key 15-yard pickup. Valparaiso needed just eight plays to maneuver 71 yards to move the score to 13-7.
Nate Egharevba was on the receiving end of three DJ Balazs passes on the Cardinals' final drive of the first quarter. but the defense eventually held on a 4th and 7 on its own 30.
Thomas Cook ran back an Alex Kozlowski (Novi, Mich./Detroit Catholic Central) punt 38 yards to allow William Jewell to begin its possession in Valpo territory. Kicker Brandon Womack split the uprights on a 25-yard field goal to create a two-possession game.
Balazs later ran a touchdown in on a QB keep from the 1-yard line. A failed two-point conversion kept it at 22-7 at halftime. William Jewell had a chance to push it to a three-possession ballgame in the final seconds of the first half, but an overaggressive play call on 4th down left the Cards with nothing to show for.
Valpo stopped the bleeding on its opening possession of the second half. The Crusaders drove all the way down into the WJC red zone and Jacob Newman (Lawrenceburg, Ind./Lawrenceburg) kicked a 33-yarder to draw the score to 22-10.
From there, the defense took over.
Balazs' first pass on the following drive was picked off by Devan Gadson (Orlando, Fla./Freedom) and returned 30 yards for a touchdown. The pick 6 created a one-possession affair, 22-17.
The second play of William Jewell's next drive again turned prosperous for the Crusaders. Senior linebacker Roberto Kelly (West Palm Beach, Fla./The Kings Academy) pounced on a botched handoff at the Cardinals' 32.
Quarterback Ben Lehman (Elgin, Ill./Saint Edward Central Catholic) wasted little time finding fellow senior Kent Warren (Mission, Texas/Veterans Memorial) in the end zone for a two-yard TD pitch-and-catch. Lehman went back to Warren on the two-point conversion to give Valpo a 25-22 advantage, its first of the afternoon.
The Brown and Gold defense stuffed the Cardinals on their subsequent drive on a 4th and 1 near midfield. The stop gave Valpo a shortened field to work with and Brandon Hall (Muskegon, Mich./Orchard VieW) eventually concluded a six-play scoring drive when he plowed across the goal line on a 4th and goal from the 1. Newman's extra point gave Valpo a ten-point lead, 32-22.
The Crusaders kept their foot on the accelerator with another scoring drive minutes later. Hall barreled in from five yards out to complete the string of 32 unanswered points.
By the time William Jewell snapped the skid, it was too late. An Egharevba TD catch from quarterback Nick West followed by a two-point conversion in the final minute made it 39-30.
A failed onside kick allowed Valparaiso to kneel out the clock.
Guilford finished the day with 13 tackles - 3.5 for a loss - and a sack. The junior made several key stops on special teams as well. Gadson recorded six tackles in addition to the interception returned for a touchdown.
Cody Cotton (Maywood, Ill./Walther Lutheran) put up doublt digit tackles as the junior notched ten (1.5 for a loss). Juniors Alex Green (Zionsville, Ind./Zionsville Community) and Melvin Graham III (Indianapolis, Ind./North Central) each pitched in nine stops.
Offensively, Bastin finished four yards shy of a 100-yard day on the ground. He tallied 96 yards on 20 carries, one for a touchdown. Lehman completed 11 of 16 passes for 106 yards. The senior offset an interception with a touchdown.
Senior Tanner Kuramata (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Claremont) led the receiving effort for Valpo. Kuramata hauled in five passes for 70 yards.
Valparaiso registered its first three takeaways on defense. Furthermore, the defense stymied William Jewell on third downs, keeping the Cardinals to just 3-of-15 in those situations.
The Crusaders (1-2, 0-0 PFL) will open Pioneer Football League play next Saturday when they head to Buies Creek, N.C. to face the Campbell Fighting Camels. Valpo has won three straight over Campbell. Kickoff is slated for 6 pm ET/5 pm CT. Links to the audio, video, and live stats will be available at valpoathletics.com.