A Valparaiso University football season that featured no shortage of dramatic finishes concluded with the most heart-pounding moment yet during Saturday’s season finale against Pioneer Football League preseason favorite San Diego at Brown Field.
With 25 seconds remaining and Valpo down six, freshman Braden Contreras (Hillsdale, Ill. / Hinsdale Central) made an impressive catch on a 9-yard pass from quarterback Ben Nimz in the back corner of the end zone. After a second that felt like an eternity, the official put his hands in the air to signal a touchdown as Contreras narrowly got his foot inbounds, sending the Valpo sideline into a state of delirium. Moments later, kicker Brian Bartholomew’s (Sugar Grove, Ill. / Kaneland) extra point sailed through the uprights to give Valpo a 20-19 lead that proved to be the final score.
San Diego’s last desperation heave was intercepted by Alex Carrillo (Plainfield, Ill. / Nazareth Academy) near the end zone, propelling head coach Landon Fox’s team to Valpo’s first win over the Toreros since 2003. Saturday marked the end of a memorable spring season that saw Valpo post its best winning percentage since 2003, but this is only the beginning of successes to come for a blossoming program under a second-year head coach.
How It Happened
- The two teams exchanged punts in the early going, before San Diego forced a turnover and took over at the Valpo 20-yard line. The Toreros (4-2) capitalized on the strong field position, cashing in with an 8-yard TD run by Emilio Martinez to go up 7-0 with 4:52 left in the opening quarter.
- The San Diego lead was no more in the blink of an eye as Charlie Maxwell (Elkhart, Ind. / Elkhart Christian Academy) leveled the score with an 86-yard return for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff to make it 7-7 with 4:46 on the clock.
- San Diego put together a five-play, 80-yard scoring drive highlighted by a 46-yard TD pass from Mason Randall to Christian Brown. However, Valpo kept the deficit at six as Drew Gedrys (McDonald, Pa. / South Fayette) blocked the PAT.
- A 45-yard hookup from Nimz to Holden Hodge (Zionsville, Ind. / Zionsville Community [Taylor]) was the big play of a drive that culminated with a 27-yard field goal by Bartholomew. That sliced the deficit to 13-10 with 13:22 to go in the second quarter. It remained 13-10 for the rest of the first half.
- A 35-yard Nimz completion to Contreras helped Valpo find the red zone early in the third quarter, and the Brown & Gold eventually tied the game on a 23-yard field goal by Bartholomew.
- With 9:05 left in the third, Keyon Turner (Chicago, Ill. / Marist) struck again. The freshman notched a takeaway for the sixth consecutive week, this time recovering a fumble at the Valpo 28 to extinguish a promising San Diego drive.
- It stayed a 13-all deadlock until midway through the fourth, when San Diego assembled a five-play, 57-yard drive that ended with a 25-yard pitch-and-catch from Randall to Michael Carner for a TD. However, Gedrys blocked the PAT yet again to keep it 19-13 with 8:33 left in the fourth.
- With Valpo facing fourth-and-long pinned at its own 3-yard line, punter Ben Niesner (Black Diamond, Wash. / Tahoma [Portland State]) delivered a crucial 72-yard boot that was downed at the San Diego 25. His career long came at a key time to flip the field position as the Toreros took over with a six-point lead with 3:41 remaining.
- Valpo got a defensive three-and-out, and then after a short punt into the wind, took over at the San Diego 43. Nimz connected with Deuce Larose (Fort Lauderdale, Fla. / Cardinal Gibbons) for a 21-yard pickup, then completed an 8-yard pass to Maxwell before the aforementioned 9-yard TD toss to Contreras that will be recalled fondly for years to come.
- Valpo still had work to do with 21 seconds on the clock, and San Diego moved the ball into Valpo territory, but the final Torero drive was thwarted by the Carrillo interception with all zeros on the clock.
Inside the Game
- Valpo wrapped up the winning season with its best winning percentage since 2003. Both the 2003 and Spring 2021 seasons featured winning percentages of .666, so this ties for Valpo’s best winning percentage since 1999.
- Valpo snapped a 14-game losing streak to the Toreros by earning its first victory over San Diego since 2003. This came after Valpo ended a 17-game head-to-head skid by picking up its first win over Drake since 2003 earlier this season. The last win over San Diego was 41-34 on Oct. 18, 2003.
- Valpo holds its best record through the first six games of a season (in this case, the only six games of the season) since 1999 and its best record through six league games since 1964.
- Valpo has earned a fourth PFL win in the same season for just the second time ever (five, 2017) and a fourth league win in any conference for the just the second time since 1968.
- The Valpo victory denied San Diego a share of the PFL title. Had the Toreros prevailed, they would have captured at least a share of the PFL championship for the seventh straight season. San Diego was also attempting to tie with Dayton (12) for the most PFL titles in conference history.
- Valpo knocked off a San Diego team that received votes in the latest STATS FCS Top 25 and AFCA Coaches Top 25. The Toreros were nationally ranked earlier in the season.
- Valpo’s last three matchups with San Diego prior to Saturday all resulted in losses by 25 points or more, as Valpo dropped those three outings by an average of 32 points per game, exemplifying the program’s progress this season.
- Valpo handed San Diego just its second PFL loss in its last 42 league games.
- Niesner finished with a season punting average of 43.6 yards per punt, tying Greg Wood’s 2010 program record for single-season punting average (when rounded to the nearest 10th of a yard). When taken to the next decimal place, Wood’s 2010 mark is slightly ahead of Niesner’s Spring 2021 mark at 43.64 and 43.58, respectively. Wood’s 2010 mark is also the PFL record. Niesner bettered the second-best single-season punting average in PFL history, which was previously San Diego’s Ryan Belden at 43.56 in 2013.
- Niesner’s career-long 72-yard punt on Saturday is only the fifth punt of 72 yards or more in FCS this season, tied for the fourth longest in the nation.
- Gedrys became only the third player in the FCS nation with multiple blocked kicks in a single game this season, joining Kennesaw State’s Desmond Scott and Southeastern Louisiana’s Ferlando Jordan. Gedrys now has four blocked kicks in his Valpo career.
- Turner was part of a turnover in all six games this spring, with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Pending final statistics from Saturday’s games across FCS, he may finish his season as the outright national leader in takeaways.
- Maxwell accounted for Valpo’s first kickoff return touchdown of the season. Ollie Reese owned the team’s most recent kickoff return TD on Oct. 12, 2019 vs. Dayton, a 95 yarder.
- Bartholomew was a perfect 2-for-2 on field goals and 2-for-2 on extra points.
- Nimz passed for 193 yards on 10 completions in his first collegiate start. He helped Valpo to a season-high 209 passing yards, as the Brown & Gold out-passed a potent USD aerial attack that entered the week leading the league in passing offense.
- Hodge had two grabs for a team-high 80 receiving yards, while Contreras and Larose had three receptions apiece. The game-winning Nimz-to-Contreras touchdown connection was the first collegiate score for both players.
- Kohlton Sherman (Millington, Mich. / Millington) had his second career interception and first since his freshman season in 2018, while Carrillo’s pick was the first of his career.
- This was Valpo’s fourth straight game decided by four points or fewer, and all six games this season were dictated by 11 points or fewer. Saturday marked Valpo’s first one-point win since beating Dayton 8-7 on Nov. 18, 2017, a game that featured a play and moment in many ways similar to the Nimz-to-Contreras connection as Jarrett Morgan threw a jump pass to Ryan Clarke for a game-winning two-point conversion in the closing minutes.
- Valpo recognized its senior class in a pregame ceremony and sent them out with a senior-day victory.
Valpo (4-2) is scheduled to open the Fall 2021 season with a road game on Sept. 4. Stay tuned for the full release of the fall schedule.