Two defensive touchdowns, four forced turnovers and a blocked field goal made the Fort Lewis College football team a formidable force Saturday afternoon in Durango.
The Skyhawks (1-3, 1-3 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) used their defensive excellence to roll to a 34-14 home win against Black Hills State University in the first game played this season at Ray Dennison Memorial Field on the FLC campus.
“I’m a defensive guy, so I love it,” said FLC head coach Joe Morris. “It’s great; hard-earned win. I’m excited to see us go out and get better every week. I thought we did a great job on special teams today, of course the defense did great, and the offense was able to move the ball when we needed to.”
Both teams were without their starting quarterbacks and top running backs, as Ryan Hommel didn’t play for Black Hills and Jake Lowry is out for the year after he suffered a broken ankle early in FLC’s loss a week earlier at Chadron State. FLC was without lead running back Tyler Telphy, wide receiver Tajon Mondy-Smith, a few linemen and starting middle linebacker Darrian Stickney.
The Yellow Jackets (0-4, 0-4 RMAC) had the chance to score first on a 42-yard field goal try from Jacob Parks after Bailey Rosenstrauch had intercepted FLC quarterback Nick McNamee in FLC territory. But Parks’ low kick was blocked by FLC’s Joshua Cuellar.
It was the FLC defense that would score first, as big defensive lineman Nathan Aguilar, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound sophomore, got into the backfield and saw Black Hills quarterback Collin Powers throw the ball directly into his arms. Aguilar only had two go 2 yards with the ball to score a touchdown. FLC missed the extra point after it took a delay of game penalty, but the Skyhawks led 6-0, and the defensive score set the tone.
“It just got our energy going and got the guys working,” Morris said.
Aguilar’s score game after a 62-yard punt by Max Peets than pinned the Yellow Jackets on their own 7-yard-line. Peets had two punts inside the Black Hills 10-yard-line in the game and five inside the 20.
On Black Hills’ next possession, Durango’s own Isiah Mayberry made back-to-back difference-making plays. He smothered Black Hills running back Jack Walbye in the backfield on a screen play, and the Yellow Jackets could have had a big gain if Mayberry hadn’t been there. The next play, Mayberry had a sack and forced a fumble from Powers, and Jaelon Wright fell on it for FLC to give the Skyhawks the ball on the Black Hills 28.
The FLC offense went to a wildcat formation with defensive back Donell Pleasant III running the ball four times for 11 yards, but those were key yards in short-yardage situations to extend the drive. Eventually, FLC would find the end zone on a 3-yard pass from McNamee to Parker Stahler, and the Skyhawks led 13-0 with 11:26 to go in the first half.
“I just love it, to play offense and defense is just great,” said Pleasant, who was a running back in junior college before transforming into an All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference talent at defensive back for FLC. “I just love having the ball in my hands as much as I can every game.”
FLC’s defense forced another quick punt, and a strong return by Mason Hatton put the ball across midfield to the 49. A few plays later, FLC running back Brayden Lucero was in the end zone on a beautiful 27-yard run, as he gashed the Yellow Jackets up the middle before he bounced out to the left to run for the score. Lucero finished with a game-high 95 rushing yards on 19 carries, good for an average of 5 yards per carry.
Black Hills again stumbled on its next drive. Powers ran the ball down to the FLC 5-yard-line, but Mayberry came up with his second forced fumble of the game. This time, Suli Tukumoeatu recovered for the Skyhawks.
“That’s just our name of the game, trying to get that quarterback every down,” Mayberry said. “I’m excited that we got to him.”
FLC gave it right back, as McNamee was intercepted for the second time, this time by Drew Hebel, who had two interceptions in the game.
Freshman quarterback Tyler Hammons came in and sparked the Yellow Jackets, and he completed a 7-yard touchdown pass to Eriq Swiftwater to get Black Hills on the board and cut the FLC lead to 20-7 before halftime.
Hebel again intercepted McNamee, this time in the end zone, in the third quarter. Two personal foul penalties on FLC gave the Yellow Jackets the ball across midfield, but a Lorenzo Tanner sack followed by a Pleasant interception gave the Skyhawks new life and the ball back.
“I feel that we put a lot of pressure on the backup quarterback that started the game off,” Tanner said. “We came in and did what we were supposed to do.”
Jack Harper gave FLC two big runs from inside the Black Hills 10-yard line, and he scored on a 1-yard run to give FLC a 27-7 lead with 8:21 to play in the third quarter.
Tukumoeatu put the game away when he intercepted Hammons and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown that gave FLC a 34-7 lead with 4:45 to play in the third quarter.
“It was very slow motion,” Tukumoeatu said, “but I seen the ball come right to me at the right time. I was in my spot, the D-line got a good rush on the quarterback, so he was quick to get it out. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, caught the ball and just followed my guys right up the sideline. It was a great experience.”
Black Hills state head coach John Reiners knew his team couldn’t afford turnovers with so many players out injured.
“I don’t blame it on a road trip,” he said. “We made too many mistakes. You can’t turn the ball over the number of times we did, especially two pick-6s. We gotta eliminate those mistakes. In the RMAC on a road trip, you are down seven. The stats show that. We gotta overcome that, and we didn’t today.”
Powell would re-enter the game in the fourth quarter, and he again found Swiftwater on a 4-yard touchdown pass in the final 75 seconds of the game.
McNamee finished 17-of-25 passing for 124 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions for FLC. Hatton was the team’s leading receiver with seven catches for 65 yards.
FLC held Black Hills to only 21 rushing yards. Powers was 19-of-31 passing for 177 yards and a touchdown with one interception.
The Skyhawks have revenge on the brain next week in the annual Musket Game rivalry at Adams State. Last year, the Grizzlies beat FLC in Durango, as the team’s seniors got to fire the Civil War-era musket traveling trophy on FLC’s field.
“I played in the Musket Game; I’m a Fort Lewis guy. It’s a big game for us,” Morris said. “We’re gonna try to go over there and fire the musket on their field. It’s a once a year type of event. I tell ya one thing, if we can’t get excited for that game, we probably don’t have a pulse.”