Given Landon Fox’s background as a defensive coach, it seems only fitting that his first win as the head coach of the Valparaiso University football team came courtesy of a glowing defensive effort.
The 19-10 victory over Stetson at a rainy and wet Brown Field on Saturday started and ended with the defense, but this victory was about more than just that. It was about the moment of joy for players and coaches alike when the sound of the Victory Bell cut the air, marking the culmination of the team’s steady improvement in recent weeks.
“This is huge,” fifth-year senior running back Elias Earley (Land O’Lakes, Fla. / Carrollwood Day) said. “We’re as proud of Coach Fox as he is of us. It’s easy to slack off in your intensity when things aren’t going well, but it’s been the same from Day 1. Our staff has put in so much time and so many hours for us. In the weight room, it’s been great to see what Coach Curtis has accomplished. I’m just happy for that staff. This is a team win, from the athletic trainers to the strength & conditioning coach to the scout team, this is a team win.”
How It Happened
- After receiving the opening kickoff, Valpo posted points on the game’s first possession. Dimitrios Latsonas (Westmont, Ill. / Westmont) nailed a 40-yard field goal to cap a nine-play, 52-yard drive and inch the hosts ahead 3-0 with 10:26 left in the opening quarter.
- Stetson quickly wrestled the lead back on its first offensive play of the afternoon. Jalen Leary broke free for a 67-yard touchdown rush, putting the Hatters on top 7-3. However, that score with 10:15 to go in the first quarter would stand as the only TD allowed all day by the Valpo defense.
- The next five possessions in the game resulted in punts as the two teams traded three-and-outs on a soggy day at Brown Field. The Hatters extended the lead to seven on a 31-yard field goal by Jonny Messina with 1:36 left in the first quarter.
- The Valpo defense forced the first turnover of the game when a mishandled snap by Stetson was recovered by Trejuan Purty (Maryville, Tenn. / Maryville [East Tennessee State]) at the Stetson 20 with 7:06 left in the second quarter. That set up a quick scoring drive that ended with Chris Duncan (Woodland Hills, Calif. / Woodland Hills-Taft) plunging across the goal line to tie the game at 10.
- The defense came through with another turnover to halt the ensuing Stetson drive. A pass was deflected into the air and intercepted by Jamari Booker (Kentwood, Mich. / East Kentwood). His 22-yard return to the Valpo 42 set up favorable field position.
- An eight-play, 32-yard drive culminated with a 43-yard field goal by Latsonas that sailed through the uprights, giving Valpo its first lead of the day at 13-10 with 1:10 left in the first half. The defense got another quick stop, keeping the three-point edge intact at the halftime break.
- The first two Valpo drives of the third quarter resulted in Latsonas field goals. He hit from 20 and 34 yards while the Valpo defense continued to do good work, keeping it 19-10 with 3:44 left in the third.
- Stetson attempted a field goal with 3:43 remaining in the fourth quarter in hopes of pulling within one possession, but the try was blocked by Trey Psota (Bay Villages, Ohio / Bay) to keep it 19-10 Valpo.
- The Hatters (5-2, 2-2) got the ball back for one final chance with 1:55 remaining, but again the Valpo defense came up with a big stop. The Brown & Gold forced a turnover for the third time in the game, as Booker snagged his second pick of the day at the Valpo 24 and returned it 10 yards, putting the finishing touches on the triumph and setting up the victory formation.
Inside the Game
- Latsonas became the first kicker in the PFL with four made field goals in a game this season. He became the 13th player in the FCS nation with four made field goals in a contest in 2019. The Valpo kicker hit twice from 40 yards or longer on a day that featured tough conditions, and was directly responsible for 13 of the team’s 19 points in the win. No Valpo kicker had made four field goals in a single game over the last 15 years prior to Saturday.
- Booker had his second two-interception game of the year, repeating his feat from Sept. 28 vs. Charleston. There have only been four multi-interception games in the entire Pioneer Football League this season, and Booker has accounted for half of them. He also became just the third player in the FCS nation with two multi-interception games this season, joining Kordell Jackson of Austin Peay and Solomon Muhammad of Alcorn.
- Booker also led the team with a season-high 13 tackles, seven solos. Psota had a big day as well, complementing his blocked kick with 11 tackles, matching a career high set this year against Charleston.
- Earley had a career day with a personal-best 112 rushing yards on 22 carries to lead the team. He tacked on a team-high two receptions for 38 yards.
- Valpo stymied Stetson to the tune of just 10 points, the fewest allowed by the defense since beating Dayton 8-7 on Nov. 18, 2017. This is just the fourth time (third against a D1 opponent) Valpo has allowed 10 points or fewer in a game over the last 19 seasons.
- Duncan’s touchdown run was the eighth of his career and his fifth this season.
Thoughts from Head Coach Landon Fox
“I’d like to start by congratulating our players on the victory. The one thing we were talking about in the locker room after the game is that our approach has been the same each and every week. That hasn’t changed, and that’s a credit to our football team. We’ve grown a lot. We showed our poise after that touchdown run on their first play from scrimmage. There was no panic on our sideline. We made adjustments, and I credit our players for that. We’re being persistent in our approach, and that’s a credit to these guys and their approach throughout the year. I’m excited about them getting their first win.”
“I told the guys in the locker room, our goal is to win football games. That’s what we want to do and what we’re going to do. The preparation and how we go about it is the key. We’re going to go back on Monday and watch the film and we’ll look at it just like we did any other week. We’ll look at what we need to do to get better. It’s all about the players, and I’m excited for them.”
“Elias (Earley) and I have talked a lot, and the thing that stands out to me is his persistence. Our expectation as a staff is that we want players to give us their very best each and every day. If you do that, we’ll give you opportunities. That’s what he was able to do, and when his opportunity came, he took advantage of it. He’s really grown as a leader. I appreciate what he’s meant to our team not only as a player, but as a person.”
“Stetson’s running backs are very good football players. After the big play to start the game, we called everyone together and said, ‘we need to do this, this and this,’ and if we do those things, we’re going to be fine. That’s what we did. It appeared we were very consistent in our assignments throughout the game.”
“I give credit to Coach Dunn, who works with our field-goal block. We’ve been close to blocking one the last few weeks, and we got it done today. There are a multiple ways we’re growing as a team. We’re doing the little things like getting skinny in the gap. Nobody has seen those things, but now we’re seeing it pay off. These guys are locked in and engaged in our meetings and our ability to get skinny and get in the gap proved to be the difference on one of the key plays of the game.”
Valpo (1-7, 1-3 PFL) will return to the road to battle Davidson in Davidson, N.C. for a noon CT kickoff next Saturday. The game will be broadcast on Davidson All-Access and as always on 95.1 FM Valparaiso WVUR. Links to live video, audio and stats will be available on ValpoAthletics.com.