Head coach Brandon Crosby and the Fort Lewis College football coaching staff pleaded with players to finish. The defense did for the Skyhawks on Saturday, with three turnovers that finished in the opponent’s end zone. Despite not getting a first down through the first 20 minutes of the second half, the Skyhawks’ offense finished when it mattered most, too.
Fort Lewis College had three defensive touchdowns, including two in the opening minutes of the third quarter to turn a 16-13 lead into a 30-13 advantage. Chadron State (1-2) would storm back to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, but FLC quarterback Jake Lowry led the offense on a brilliant game-winning drive, and FLC had a 7-point lead with 1:36 to play. The defense would get one final defensive stand, and the Skyhawks pulled off a big 37-30 home win against the Eagles out of Nebraska on Saturday at Ray Dennison Memorial Field on the FLC campus in Durango.
For FLC (2-1), it was a big win after heartbreak at home against Dixie State in a game the Skyhawks also led by two scores at halftime.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve fought a lot of adversity and, unfortunately, come out on the losing end of that. I think it’s a huge turning point for our team,” Crosby said. “They fought their heart out over and over again. To feel the adversity, and over time, it is a good transition for our football team.”
It would have been another loss without the strong defensive effort, which has been the staple of the Skyhawks for years. Under the guidance of defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato, who has spent two stints as a head coach at FLC, the Skyhawks defense shined once again Saturday. It was Blakye De La Rosa who had a strip sack in the third quarter that was recovered by Tim Paogofie for an FLC touchdown early in the third quarter, and then De La Rosa scored a touchdown of his own only moments later when cornerback Ka’Lonn Milton blitzed Chadron State quarterback Dalton Holst and forced another fumble that fell right into the arms of De La Rosa, who rumbled 40 yards for a TD.
“It feels great,” De La Rosa said. “It’s a great feeling knowing defense had to step up. For the offense to finish, it was the best part.”
Jeff Hansen set the tone in the first half for FLC with 89 rushing yards. He finished with a team-high 95 on 19 carries.
Lowry went 10-of-22 passing for 114 yards, one interception and one TD. He was sacked three times. He also ran for 69 yards and the game-winning score with 1:36 to play in the fourth quarter. It was a big game for the junior QB, who last year had his season ended at Chadron State when he broke his ankle early in the Week 3 game. That sent the FLC season spiraling. The whole FLC sideline erupted Saturday when Lowry delivered a stiff arm to the same player who made the tackle on Lowry that caused the injury last season. (See photo above.)
“Glory to God, he helped me heal this whole process,” Lowry said. “It was a long process, but I’m so thankful to be back in this situation, being able to play with these guys. It was awesome.”
Holst finished the game 23-of-42 passing for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Tevon Wright made eight catches for 113 yards and two TDs. Stevann Brown rushed for 94 yards on 25 carries to lead the Eagles.
How it happenedThe Skyhawks stormed out to a 16-0 lead before the Eagles chipped back into the game before halftime. A 30-yard field goal from Hogan Keasler gave FLC a 3-0 lead with 14:07 to play in the second quarter. When FLC next got the ball, powerful running from Hansen and timely throws from Lowry got FLC within striking distance. Lowry hit Isaac Leppke on an 11-yard touchdown pass, and FLC had a 10-0 lead with 7:18 to go before halftime.
The first defensive touchdown came only 44 seconds later. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Chadron State on the kickoff had the Eagles backed up deep in their own territory. Chadron State fumbled, but Holst fell on the bad snap inside his own 5-yard line. Another bad snap on the next play bounced around before it was recovered by FLC defensive back Suli Tukumoeatu in the end zone for an FLC touchdown. That made it 16-0 with 6:34 to play before half.
Chadron State stormed back with the hurry-up offense and went 74 yards in eight plays, with a 25-yard TD pass down the middle of the field from Holst to Wright. A 2-point conversion attempt was no good, and FLC’s lead was 16-6 going into halftime.
Chadron State got the ball to start the third quarter and wasted no time. In the hurry-up offense, the Eagles went 88 yards in only four plays, as Holst lofted a perfect pass to Brandon Fullerton for a 40-yard TD pass down the right sideline to cut the Skyhawks’ lead to 16-13 only one minute into the third quarter.
After the FLC offense had a quick three-and-out, it was time for the FLC defensive showcase. A punt for FLC’s Matt Wait pinned the Eagles on their own 1-yard line. A few plays later, De La Rosa got pressure on Holst and chased him to his left. De La Rosa latched onto Holst and spun him around. Holst appeared to try to throw the ball away for what would have been a safety, but it was ruled a fumble, and Paogofie fell on it for an FLC touchdown to give the Skyhawks a two-score lead at 23-13 with 11:08 to play in the third quarter.
“Shout out to (Paogofie) getting pressure on that line with me,” De La Rosa said. “As soon as I saw it open up, I took the opportunity, and that’s where it happened.”
It was De La Rosa who would score the next FLC touchdown. The Skyhawks sent Milton, a transfer from Fresno State, on a blitz, and he popped Holst. The ball came out and fell right into the arms of De La Rosa, who rumbled 40 yards for an FLC touchdown to make it 30-13.
“I’m always telling people I should be a linebacker or a defensive end,” Milton said. “Once I get a chance to blitz, I’m gonna take advantage of it the best I can. Coach dialed it up, a great play call, and (De La Rosa) did an amazing job toting the ball to the end zone.”
“Man, it was surreal,” De La Rosa added. “... I didn’t even know I had it in my hands until I started running. They said I broke a tackle, but that’s beyond me. As soon as I got into the end zone, point to the sky and give God all the glory.”
After FLC’s defense had a key stop on fourth down, the offense again failed to get anything going and quickly punted. Chadron took over on its own 20 after a touchback. Milton checked back in the game and nearly had an interception on a deep pass from Holst, but it fell through his hands. The Eagles would continue to drive, and Holst would loft a 29-yard TD pass to Wright, who got away with an offensive pass interference to haul in the score. That cut the Skyhawks’ lead to 30-20 with 37 seconds to play in the third quarter.
The FLC offense didn’t pick up a first down in the third quarter and was faced with third-and-13 to start the fourth quarter. Lowry was sacked, and a tired FLC defense had to come back onto a short field at the Chadron State 43 after the unit had spent 10 minutes on the field in the third quarter.
The Eagles converted a key third-and-11 and a fourth-and-7 to get inside the FLC 10-yard line. Holst then ran for a 9-yard TD to get the Eagles within 30-27 with 10:18 to play in the fourth quarter.
The Skyhawks looked to have a big pass play to the 50 from Lowry to Hansen, but a holding call brought FLC all the way back to its own 10. On third-and-12, Lowry was sacked by Chadron State’s Noah Kerchal, and the Waid punt on fourth down was short and made even worse by a strong wind to give Chadron State the ball on the FLC 30.
The Eagles would try a 30-yard field goal after a big defensive stand by FLC. An ugly, spiraling kick from Colton Dolder barely cleared the crossbar of the goalpost, and Chadron State tied the game at 30-30 with 6:30 to play in the fourth quarter.
It was then time for Lowry’s heroics.
“At that point, we just really had to dig deep,” Lowry said. “We knew the defense was playing incredible. We wanted to do anything we could to get a long drive. We knew we were gonna win the game running the ball.”
Finally, FLC picked up its initial first down of the second half with 5:40 to play in the fourth quarter when Lowry scrambled for two consecutive first downs across midfield as the clock ticked under four minutes to play. Facing a second-and-16 from their own 46, the Skyhawks benefited from a defensive pass interference call to get to the Chadron State 37 with less than three minutes to play.
Facing third-and-2 from the Chadron State 29, Crosby and offensive coordinator Jeff Nady dialed up a beautiful play. Lowry faked a handoff and floated a pass deep to freshman tight end Zach Russell, who secured the catch on the 6-yard line of Chadron.
“It was a great play call,” Lowry said. “We didn’t know if the corner would take the flat or the corner route by the tight end. He took the flat, and the corner was wide open. I could have gave him a better throw and we score there. It was a great catch by Zach Russell and a great play call by coach.”
Lowry then ran for five yards, and Chadron State took its final timeout with 1:36 to play. One play later, Lowry waltzed into the end zone, and FLC took a 37-30 lead.
“I thought the first one was in, so I got to enjoy it twice,” Lowry said. “It was a good feeling. I knew (the defense was) gonna take care of business if we got in, so it was great.”
On fourth-and-7 at the 50 for Chadron State, Holst was able to find Wright for another huge completion to the FLC 34 with 44 seconds to play. Then, on fourth-and-10 on the 34, Holst hit Brown, who laid out to make a diving catch to move the chains again. But the Eagles wouldn’t gain another yard, as two incomplete passes ended the game.
HHHIt was the first win for FLC against Chadron State since 2015. Last year, FLC had a lead with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter but lost by 10 points. It was one of four losses by 10 points or less during a 1-9 season. Now, FLC already has one more win than all of last year.
The Skyhawks will head to Spearfish, South Dakota, next week to face Black Hills State.
“Boy, 1-2 going to Black Hills right now would feel really, really bad,” Crosby said. “But, I told these guys, it’s all about them. If we can turn the corner on having some adversity and winning and changing the emotion and tide of our team in that direction, we can really do some damage. We still have a lot to fix, a long way to go. It’s a long season, but I’m very excited about the heart of this team and think the sky is the limit if we keep healthy and keep moving the right direction.”