BLOOMINGTON — The Augustana football team left Saturday's CCIW contest against hosting Illinois Wesleyan knowing they let a great opportunity for a huge road win slip away.
The Vikings did enough on both sides of the ball to keep the Titans winless on the season, but the Vikings also let too many chances slip past and suffered their first loss of the campaign, a 21-17 setback that ended with them knocking on the door of victory.
Having driven the Vikings from their own 10-yard line in the final two-minutes, five-seconds, Zach Fuller's final pass attempt to Bobby Jarosz out of the backfield from the IWU 10 fell incomplete and ended the Vikings' hopes of their first victory at Tucci Stadium since the 2014 season.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we should have won that game,” said Augie coach Steve Bell after his club dropped to 2-1, 1-1 in the CCIW. “They're a good football team and let's not take away from them; they won it. But there's no question in my mind and there should be no question in our players' minds that that's a ball game that we should have won with all the opportunities that we had. … We just didn't finish a few things that we should have.”
In that final drive, Rock Island's Alek Jacobs stepped in for Fuller (26-45-0, 348 yards) when he missed two snaps because of cramps. Jacobs had a short run for a first down and then hit Max Uranich with a 15-yard pass to move the Vikings to the IWU 28 before Fuller returned.
Both teams took timeouts before Fuller's final attempt. Bell said IWU's timeout didn't change the play that called for Fuller to look into the end zone — on a similar play that was open in the first half.
“It was not designed to be thrown short, but if he catches it clean, he still might have scored,” said Bell of the dump off to Jarosz, who finished with 144 yards from scrimmage, including five catches for 76 yards.
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Augie's two touchdown were on Fuller tosses. He found Patrick Byrne for a 6-yarder early in the second that tied the score at 7. With 5:25 left in the third, after a 39-yard punt return by John Kappel, Fuller hit Ethan Jennings on a 21-yarder that got the Vikings back in the game and righted the ship after the blocked punt.
Augie had plenty of other missed opportunities to rue. In fact, their first two drives of the game ended on downs at the IWU 31 (after a missed 21-yard field goal) and the Titan 14 (after recovering a lost IWU fumble). A third-quarter drive stalled at the IWU 21.
Those missed opportunities were the story of the day. The Vikings ran 87 plays for 437 yards and out-gained IWU by 83 yards but found themselves on too many occasions getting into the red zone and not coming away with points.
“Yep. Yep. Yep, Yep. Yep. Yep,” said Bell about the missed scoring chances. “And one gimme (on the blocked punt) and there's your ball game. They did minimal to score that touchdown; it was more us than it was them.”
With the Vikings defense pitching a second-half shutout and coming up with two turnovers, the game-deciding points came on the first possession of the second half. The Vikings were held on three Jarosz rushing attempts and had the punt unit on the field. Justin Wehr's rugby style kick was blocked by Christopher Kosinksi. The ball was picked up by Robert Neidballa and returned 20 yards for a touchdown that gave Illinois Wesleyan (1-2, 1-1 CCIW) a 21-10 lead.
“Just a missed assignment,” said Bell of the block. “That's what happens — as soon as you don't block someone, they're going to block the punt.”
“That was big right there,” said IWU coach Norm Eash on a post-game radio interview. “That took away their momentum and gave us momentum.”
Still, the Vikings seemingly out-played the Titans in the second half and kept the pressure on.
“I thought defensively we did enough to win, no doubt,” said Bell. “That was a good football team we played and they're going to get some.”