BY GRANT RIGGS
At first glance, McKendree’s football game against St. Joseph’s College (SJC) on Oct. 15 seemed like a relatively unimportant game for the Bearcats. Despite it being Homecoming, McKendree was coming off of two straight conference losses and looked to be out of the race for the GLVC conference title. If McKendree would have lost this game to SJC, who was 3-1 in conference play before Saturday, it would have dropped their overall record to 3-4 and 1-3 in the conference, thus effectively ending McKendree’s hopes of winning conference.
All throughout the season, McKendree has faced adversity. In the game against SJC, they were tested once more in the final minutes of the game. Statistically, a McKendree comeback to defeat SJC, who lead the majority of the game, seemed very unlikely. McKendree struggled the entire game and looked to have little shot to comeback and win (more on this later). But, that’s the thing about sports: the games aren’t solely based on statistics and aren’t played on paper.
Adversity is a word the McKendree football team has become familiar with. They’re used to having to fight to overcome challenges. Adversity first struck nearly three quarters through the first game of the season, when initial starting quarterback/punter Brendan Fred was lost for the season due to a broken ankle. Adversity has come time and time again in the form of injuries that have taken down All-American defensive lineman Lucky Baar and quarterback Brandon Wildman. Nevertheless, McKendree fought through that adversity and rode third-string junior quarterback Elcee Burke to a win in the final minutes of the game against SJC.
Dissecting McKendree’s comeback win
McKendree’s win on Saturday ultimately hinged on one factor: quarterback Elcee Burke. The defense played great, holding SJC to just 16 points and 365 yards on 95 plays while forcing two turnovers. Running back Shayeen Edwards was also productive, as he had his third straight 100-yard rushing game on Saturday. While Edwards and the defense as a whole kept McKendree in the game, it was Burke’s fourth quarter play that took them over the top. Before the 3:29 mark in the fourth quarter, when McKendree started their comeback, Burke was ultimately ineffective as a passer and/or runner.
He completed just 4 of 18 passes for 52 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and rushed for 27 yards. Most of his passing yards came on a 43-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Darius Crochrell. If you take away that one pass, he was a mere 3 for 17 with nine passing yards. However, after the 3:29 mark in the fourth quarter, he was an efficient 6 of 9 on passing attempts for 51 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 24 more yards. He accounted for every single yard on McKendree’s 11 play, 86-yard drive that cut St. Joe’s lead to 16-14. After McKendree got a huge blocked punt from sophomore linebacker John Alvin (more on this later as well), Burke put the finishing touches on the comeback by tossing a 4-yard touchdown to sophomore tight end Skylar Paulson, who made a great catch to give McKendree the lead and eventually the win. Despite his struggles, Burke’s talent ultimately showed through late in the game. If he can build on that success, then McKendree may have found a lasting quarterback moving forward.
How McKendree can build off of the win
In my last article, I mentioned that in order for McKendree to stay in the game against U-Indy, they would have to avoid a second quarter lapse that plagued them all season. In their two games since then, McKendree has avoided that lapse and actually outscored those two opponents (U-Indy and SJC) by a combined score of 17-14 in both second quarters of those games. Avoiding that lapse kept them in contention in both of those games and ultimately allowed them to steal a win in one of them.
McKendree’s win on Saturday was, without a doubt, huge. However, it will become relatively meaningless if they don’t capitalize on the momentum and put together a string of wins. While Burke came through late in the game on Saturday, he will need to be more consistent both through the air and on the ground to give McKendree a chance against Missouri S&T this upcoming Saturday, Oct. 22. The same goes for freshman quarterback Brandon Wildman, if he returns from injury to play quarterback for the Bearcats. While he is more effective than Burke in terms of passing, Wildman will have to complete a higher percentage of his passes if he plays in the game against S&T, as he is completing just 44.8 percent thus far.
Going forward, McKendree will ultimately need to win the time of possession battle. Whether it’s Wildman or Burke at quarterback, fewer incomplete passes will help McKendree control the time of possession, which has been a problem for the bearcats so far this year. Another way McKendree could win the time of possession battle is by incorporating more designed quarterback runs. This again applies to both Wildman and Burke, who have both shown promise to be effective while running the football. Designing more runs for the quarterback could also open up even more running lanes for Shayeen Edwards, as the defense will have to worry about not only Edwards running the ball, but Burke and/or Wildman running it as well. Furthermore, an improved running game can also improve the passing game, as the defense will be forced to creep up for the run, thus making them more susceptible to deep passes off of play action. McKendree could find success against S&T this week if they apply these principles.
The symbolic blocked punt
People love sports for many reasons: the crazy atmospheres at games and the escape from reality, among other reasons. However, the main reason people love sports is for the moments they provide. These are occurrences that are unforeseeable, often unexplainable, and touch people beyond the realm of sports. Incredible moments happen every year within the world of sports on every level. What happened Saturday at Leemon Field was nothing short of one of those moving moments.
McKendree dedicated last Saturday’s game to former punter Alex McMahon, who passed away from a five-year bout with cancer last Sunday. As mentioned earlier, the key play in McKendree’s comeback win on Saturday was a blocked punt by linebacker John Alvin with 1:10 left in the game with the Bearcats down 16-14. The blocked punt was returned 30 yards by junior defensive back Weston Brown to St. Joseph’s 7-yard line, McKendree eventually scored the go-ahead touchdown, and the rest is history. Of all the ways that McKendree could’ve gotten the ball back to take the lead, they just so happened to get the ball back by a blocked punt when all hope seemed lost. It seems almost undeniable that Alex McMahon was watching over his team on Saturday and had a say in the way the cards played out for McKendree’s win. Moments like these, the ones that touch all of those involved in a way that is greater than just the game, are why we love sports.
Cover photo: Quarterback Elcee Burke attempting a pass. Photo credit: McKendree Athletics