The Valparaiso University football team held the lead midway through the second quarter and faced just a four-point halftime deficit, but full-scholarship Big Sky foe Montana pulled away for a 45-23 victory on Saturday. The Crusaders enjoyed their most competitive visit to a full-scholarship team in recent memory, displaying numerous bright spots against a premier FCS program.
How It Happened
- After establishing himself as one of the FCS nation’s top kick returners during his freshman season, Bailey Gessinger (Napanne, Ind. / Northwood) picked up right where he left off with a 32-yard return on the opening kickoff.
- The Grizzlies struck first as Jeremy Calhoun plunged into the end zone from 1 yard out to cap a 77-yard scoring drive highlighted by a 63-yard completion from Reese Phillips to Jerry Louie-McGee.
- After going three-and-out on the opening drive, Valpo settled in offensively. Donny Navarro (Naperville, Ill. / Neaqua Valley) made his first collegiate catch in the early going, and it’s one the Valpo freshman won’t soon forget. On the first play of his career, Navarro hauled in a 50-yard grab from quarterback Jimmy Seewald (Livonia, Mich. / Divine Child).
- That drive that featured Navarro’s grab ended with the Crusaders getting on the board as Dimitrios Latsonas (Westmont, Ill. / Westmont) nailed a 23-yard field goal to cap a 7-play, 60-yard drive that spanned 2:59.
- Following a quick stop by the Valpo defense, the Crusaders received another big play on their next drive, this time with Frank Catrine (Springboro, Ohio / Bishop Fenwick) beating double coverage on a pass down the far sideline. Seewald placed his throw on the money, resulting in a 61-yard gain.
- Latsonas improved to 2-for-2 on field goals, angling one through the uprights for a 29-yard field goal to pull Valpo within a point at 7-6.
- With 3:02 to go in the opening quarter, Brandon Purdy’s 24-yard field goal try sneaked through the left upright and Montana bolstered its lead to 10-6.
- Austin Petrie (Livonia, Mich. / Stevenson) delivered a big hit to force a Phillips fumble with 12:18 remaining in the second quarter. Jordan Goebel (Lansing, Mich. / Grand Ledge) was there for the recovery, a turnover that setup Valpo’s first touchdown drive of the season.
- Navarro had an encore for his earlier grab as Chris Duncan found him for a 33-yard score with 8:20 left in the first half, giving the Crusaders a13-10 lead over the Grizzlies and temporarily quieting Montana’s crowd of 23,160.
- In his return after missing almost all of the 2016 season with an injury, J.J. Nunes (Baltimore, Md. / Baltimore Lutheran) made his presence known defensively. After having an earlier fumble recovery overturned by video review, Nunes found a way to notch a turnover, grabbing a tipped pass and taking off for a 24-yard interception return. That pick halted Montana’s first drive of the second half and gave Valpo the ball with a chance to regain the lead, down just 17-13.
- A Valpo team that lost just one fumble all of last season gave up its first fumble since Week 1 of 2016 when Tucker Schye forced a fumble and recovered with Valpo down 17-13 in the third.
- Samori Toure was left open in the end zone with 1:24 left in the third, leading to a 14-yard TD grab on a pass from Phillips. Toure’s touchdown boosted Montona’s lead to 11 at 24-13.
- Montana scored two quick touchdowns to begin the fourth quarter, boosting the lead to 38-13.
- Duncan delivered a touchdown toss over the middle to Griffin Norberg (Sunrise, Fla. / Western) with 10:31 left in the fourth, helping the Crusaders bounce back and cutting the lead to 38-20.
- The Crusaders added points with 3:34 left in the fourth as Latsonas crushed one through the center of the uprights for a 44-yard field goal, making it 45-23.
Inside the Game
- The Duncan-to-Navarro touchdown hookup marked the first career score for both players.
- Senior Ryan Clarke (Hopatcong, N.J. / Hopatcong) made his first collegiate catch, which went for a first down. He finished with a pair of catches for 29 yards.
- Nunes’ interception was the second of his career, while Goebel, a redshirt freshman, was credited with a fumble recovery in his collegiate debut.
- Navarro, a true freshman, had three grabs for 93 yards, ranking second on the team in receiving yards. The team leader was Norberg, who had a career-high 104 receiving yards. His previous career high was 60, which came his freshman year against Butler.
- Norberg notched the fifth receiving touchdown of his Valpo career.
- Duncan came off the bench and threw for 150 yards, completing eight passes in 14 attempts and heaving a pair of TDs in his Valpo debut. Seewald completed 12 passes for 177 yards.
- Duncan flashed his running ability by rushing for a team-best 50 yards on 13 carries. Elias Earley (Land O’Lakes, Fla. / Carrollwood Day) chipped in 41 yards on five carries.
- This marked Valpo’s 10th visit to a scholarship program since the start of the 2010 season and was the smallest margin of defeat in those contests.
- Latsonas had only one career made field goal before Saturday, and he went 3-for-3 including a career-long from 41 yards.
- Nunes, Drew Snouffer (Columbus, Ohio / Upper Arlington) and Josmar Diaz-Martinez (Miramar, Fla. / Miramar) each made 10 tackles, sharing the team lead.
- The team stats were close in many categories, including first downs (26-22 Montana), rushing yards (139-123 Montana) and passing yards (339-327 Montana).
- Valpo, a team known for its discipline last season, did commit seven penalties for 45 yards.
Thoughts from Head Coach Dave Cecchini
“I tip my hat to Bob Stitt and his program. They have a tough offense to defend. It was a tough football game, and that showed in the second half as we lost control of the line of scrimmage. I don’t know if we ever had control of the line of scrimmage on offense, but we had at least fought it to a standstill earlier. As that third quarter progressed, our defense got worn out after playing their tails off earlier in the game. I’m proud of what our kids did, but there’s disappointment as well because, with the way we played, we could have been in that game even longer. We need to cut down on the penalties; that’s not our style. In the first game of the season, there’s going to be hiccups. It’s no moral victory, but I’m really proud of how we played.”
The Crusaders will come home a week from now to host Duquesne, a team that dropped its season opener to South Dakota State 51-13 on Thursday night. The game between the Crusaders and Dukes kicks off at 1 p.m. CT and links to live audio and stats will be available on ValpoAthletics.com.