BY GRANT RIGGS
As I first sat down to write this article, I struggled with naming it. On one hand, McKendree had its unusual amount of ups and downs in a blowout victory over Missouri S&T, with most of the “down” moments coming because of injury. “Why we should take McKendree’s win over Missouri S&T with a grain of salt” first came to mind. To take something with a grain of salt means to view something with skepticism about its truth. This was my initial thought because, while Saturday’s win was undoubtedly a great one, it brought some skepticism along with it, skepticism that made me question if McKendree could maintain that level of play because of the injuries they sustained during the game. That same skepticism continued to grow because McKendree’s conference title and playoff hopes still remain slim, as Truman State and Southwest Baptist (the two teams ahead of McKendree in the GLVC) continue to win. However, even though the final score of the game doesn’t tell the entire story, I decided against that title because some truly great things happened in McKendree’s win against S&T, things that show just how good McKendree will be in the future.
The good that happened on Saturday
The first thing that was obvious to all of those in attendance this past Saturday was just how much of an impact senior defensive end Lucky Baar had on this game, as well as on the entire McKendree team in general. Baar, who returned after not playing in McKendree’s previous two games due to an injury, had three sacks on the day, as well as numerous quarterback hurries. Baar also opens up plenty of other looks for his fellow defensive linemen because his presence oftentimes requires a double team from opponents. This opens up more lanes to the quarterback for other McKendree d-linemen, as seen on Saturday. For example, defensive tackle Tyler House, who had zero sacks in the two games that Baar missed, recorded one sack on Saturday. Darion Simmons, another defensive tackle, had two sacks on Saturday while registering just one sack in the two games that Baar missed. Baar, who at the end of his career will be known as one of the best Division II defensive linemen ever (he needs just three and a half sacks to tie the all-time Division II career record), greatly elevates the play of those around him.
The second aspect that stood out was how McKendree seemed to do all of the little things right. Jordan Osborne, a junior defensive back for the Bearcats, has played a rather small role throughout the season. Having made just nine total tackles on the season, he plays in more of a reserve role for the Bearcats. However, Osborne made one of the biggest plays of the game on Saturday that probably went unnoticed by many. With 13:17 left in the second quarter and McKendree holding a 14-0 lead, defensive lineman Tobias Cook tipped Missouri S&T quarterback Tyler Swart’s pass and intercepted it. Cook returned the interception nearly 20 yards before fumbling the ball. Enter Jordan Osborne. Osborne easily could’ve taken the play off after Cook intercepted the pass, assuming that Cook would be tackled and McKendree’s offense would take over. Instead, Osborne did the right thing, followed after Cook just in case and put himself in position to recover the fumble and set up a McKendree touchdown. This is a big play for two reasons. First, it set up a McKendree touchdown, allowed them to take a three-touchdown lead and nearly close the book on an S&T comeback. Second, and most importantly, it provides us an example of how McKendree has been doing the little things right, which is one of the marks of a good football team.
Last but not least, the way McKendree ran the ball on Saturday was arguably the most impressive aspect of their game. If I told you before Saturday’s game that junior running back Preston Thompson would carry the ball 26 times, would you have expected McKendree to come away with a blowout win over a quality GLVC opponent? Considering the fact that Thompson had zero carriers before this game, I’m guessing you would’ve expected McKendree to lose the game. Instead, Thompson turned in a quality performance with 105 rushing yards and one touchdown. His performance was especially crucial because it came when McKendree was in dire need of offensive help after starting quarterback Brandon Wildman and starting running back Shayeen Edwards both went down with presumed season-ending injuries in this game. The fact that someone like Thompson, who seemed like no more than a depth-chart filler before this game, can turn in a performance like that against a quality S&T defense (ranked second in the conference in rushing yards allowed) is incredible. It is a testament to McKendree’s depth at running back, as well as how good McKendree’s offensive line is.
The bad that happened on Saturday
Despite the 40-7 victory, there are still some negatives from Saturday’s game. The injuries that McKendree suffered during the game somewhat belittle the victory. As mentioned earlier, starting running back Shayeen Edwards was lost for the game and possibly the season with an injury to his right arm. Edwards, who is a proven playmaker out of the backfield, was seen on the sideline with his arm in a sling. While losing Edwards will certainly hurt, the biggest blow of the day came when first-string freshman quarterback Brandon Wildman once again went down with an injury. After engineering two early touchdown drives, Wildman took a shot to his left knee and was knocked out of the game with a torn ligament. With Wildman done for the year because of this injury, McKendree has lost its last healthy quarterback that can effectively move the ball through the air.
In the grand scheme of things, Wildman’s injury may not mean much. If anything, it will allow him to get healthy for next season, where he will be expected to compete with currently-injured junior Brendan Fred for the starting quarterback job. While it is highly unlikely, the only way this injury could truly hurt McKendree is if the top two teams in the GLVC, Truman State and Southwest Baptist, lose their next two GLVC games, while McKendree wins its next two. Wildman’s injury then becomes a real issue because McKendree would play Truman State in each team’s last game of the season, with both teams tied for the GLVC lead. This would mean the winner of that game would be crowned the GLVC conference champion. This is problematic because, without Wildman at the helm, McKendree would stand little chance to move the ball against the GLVC’s number one defense in Truman State. McKendree would be forced to rely too much on its defense against a really good Truman State offense and would most likely lose this game, thus ending their season and chance for the playoffs.
With only three games left in the season and little chance to win the conference title and make the playoffs, expect coach Mike Babcock to make a few changes. With Wildman out for the rest of the season, sophomore Reece Metcalf may get an extended opportunity to play quarterback. With quarterback Elcee Burke showing little sign of life as a passer, Metcalf could, and probably should, get a chance to show what he can do. I would also expect versatile sophomore Dequan Dudley to be more involved during the last three games of this season, as well as all of next season. Dudley, who had four rushes for 43 yards on Saturday, is always one of the fastest players on the field for both teams. Expect Dudley, who is listed as a wide receiver, to get more carriers and screen passses thrown his way. We could also see Dudley more involved in kick and punt returns going forward, as Dudley has McKendree’s longest kick return on the season at 53 yards.
Another change the coaching staff may make is moving quarterback Elcee Burke to either running back or wide receiver. This is a change that would likely not take place until next season, but is one that could really benefit the offense. Looking ahead to next season, McKendree will hopefully have quarterbacks Brendan Fred and Brandon Wildman healthy. If Reece Metcalf can establish himself as at least somewhat of a weapon throwing the ball, then there will be no reason to keep Elcee Burke at quarterback. Moving Burke to running back or receiver will allow him to make plays with his feet without having to worry about passing the ball, an area he has struggled in this season.
While these changes are just my speculation and haven’t been confirmed by the coaching staff, I believe they could greatly benefit the McKendree football team in the future.
Cover photo: Standout senior defensive lineman looks to make a tackle against St. Joseph’s College. Photo credit: mckendree.edu