Ray Dennison Memorial Field has been a house of horror for the Colorado State University-Pueblo football team its previous two trips to Durango. Saturday, the ThunderWolves escaped Fort Lewis College after a slight scare the weekend after Halloween.
Tied 7-7 late in the second quarter, Fort Lewis College and No. 13 CSU-Pueblo were locked in a tight defensive battle. But CSU-Pueblo quarterback Jordan Kitna connected with Nick Williams on a key 36-yard touchdown pass shortly before halftime, and two third-quarter interceptions thrown by FLC quarterback Erik Ornduff helped the ThunderWolves take the lead for good in a 21-13 win.
“It’s a tough place to play,” said CSU-Pueblo head coach John Wristen. “It’s one of the only grass fields we see. Fort Lewis does a great job getting their team ready for opponents that come here to play, and it’s always a challenge.”
The previous two times the nationally-ranked ThunderWolves had visited Durango in 2014 and 2017, they had been upset by the Skyhawks, including their lone loss of the 2014 season when CSU-Pueblo claimed the NCAA Division II national championship.
FLC (3-6, 3-6 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) couldn’t pull off the feat for a third time despite an opportunity with the ball on its 46-yard line with 1 minute, 32 seconds to play and one timeout. Needing a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to tie the game, FLC didn’t gain a single yard and turned the ball over on downs. That allowed the ThunderWolves (8-1, 7-1 RMAC) to take two kneel downs and secure the victory.
“It’s brutal,” FLC head coach Brandon Crosby said of the final possession. “We’re not ready for that moment I don’t think right now, especially with all the injuries. It would have been nice and a miracle and all that, but we didn’t get it done. I was still proud of our team today.”
The Skyhawks’ run game never got going Saturday. Down to fourth-string running back Jack Harper, who totaled five yards on 10 carries, FLC was held to a net of 12 rushing yards on 22 attempts. Ornduff passed for 281 yards and two TDs on 19-of-38 passing, but his two third-quarter interceptions to Amu Aukusitino and Marcus Lawrence were costly.
After the first to Aukusitino, Kitna and the ThunderWolves went on a six-play, 77-yard drive with a 50-yard completion to Williams before Kitna hit Djimon O’Neil on a 16-yard TD to give the ThunderWolves a 21-7 lead with 10:48 to go in the third quarter.
“Our defense is the best in the country, I feel like,” said Kitna, son of former NFL quarterback and current Dallas Cowboys QB coach Jon Kitna. “They get us the ball back, and we gotta go score for them.”
The Skyhawks’ defense held CSU-Pueblo scoreless the rest of the way, and FLC’s stagnant offense briefly came to life on a late fourth-quarter drive, as Ornduff hit tight end Sam Kullberg across the middle of the field for a 63-yard completion to get to the CSU-Pueblo 8-yard line. Ornduff then hit tight end Zach Russell on a 5-yard TD pass to make it a one-score game with 3:12 to play. Matt Waid missed the extra-point, and he had missed a 38-yard field goal try badly earlier in the game to keep FLC at only 13 points.
The Skyhawks’ defense would force a quick three-and-out by CSU-Pueblo, but the FLC offense could do nothing with the final opportunity.
Marcus Lindsay, younger brother of Denver Broncos Pro Bowl running back Phillip Lindsay, scored the game’s first TD on a 2-yard run with 14:10 to go in the second quarter to give CSU-Pueblo a 7-0 lead.
After a key running into the punter penalty extended FLC’s ensuing drive, Ornduff hit wide receiver Markez Boykin on an 18-yard pass before a 50-yard strike to Boykin for a TD that tied the game at 7-7 with 11:08 to go in the first half.
That would be all the scoring until Kitna hit Williams on the 36-yard TD pass with 37 seconds to go before halftime. Williams broke through three tackles and used a good block downfield to spring free on the score.
Kitna finished the game 16-of-24 passing for 240 yards and two TDs. He was sacked twice, once by Fanon Vines and another by Darrian Stickney.
“Their pass rush was pretty good,” said Kitna. “They put some pressure on our offensive line, but I felt like we held up pretty well. When the running lanes opened, you gotta take them and we did a pretty good job of that.”
CSU-Pueblo turned the ball over once on an Austin Micci fumble recovered by Dakota Helms at the ThunderWolves’ 23-yard line in the first half. FLC would miss a field-goal opportunity after the takeaway.
The FLC defense also had a key red-zone stand in the first quarter in which CSU-Pueblo missed a 31-yard field.
“They continue to fight,” Crosby said of his defense. “They know how good they are. Not one person on that defense would back down from anybody. Those Helms brothers are little bullets. Every time they hit somebody, their helmet is on the ball. They don’t back down, and it’s fun to watch them.
“We are sound on defense, and I can’t say enough about (defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato). The guy is a genius when it comes to defense, keeping it simple and teaching guys to play football.”
Micci rushed for 50 yards on 12 carries. D.J. Penick was held to 32 rushing yards on 14 carries, as FLC limited the ThunderWolves to only 102 rushing yards in the game.
“They kept the safeties in the box and had a nine-man box,” Wristen said of the FLC defense. “That’s why we tried to throw the post and were successful on a couple of them. (Rifilato) does a great job defensively, and it’s unbelievable how his kids are prepared.”
Not only was FLC depleted at running back, but the Skyhawks were down three wide receivers and had four receivers playing out of their normal position. Crosby said he was having to draw up simple plays and tell players where to go during the second half.
CSU-Pueblo will host Black Hills State and Western Colorado the final two weeks of the season and will look to enter the Division II playoffs as a one-loss team.
“We’re 8-1 and we gotta keep trying to win and get better every week,” Wristen said.
FLC was coming off a three-game road trip and now will have a bizarre bye week late in the season before the regular-season finale Nov. 16 at home against South Dakota Mines. Though it’s a weird time to have a bye and will be a challenge to keep players focused for one final game to prepare for during the next two weeks, Crosby said it will allow the team to get healthy before senior day.
“It’s really brutal,” Crosby said of the late bye two years in a row. “Right now after this game, it’s kind of nice to heal up a bit and hopefully end the season with a good win for our seniors on a home game. Last year, we had to travel to South Dakota after a bye and it was brutal. I don’t know how the schedule gets done and works out, but it’s been tough.”