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Bees defense delivers in home opener
COLLEGE FOOTBALL | ST. AMBROSE 14, ST. FRANCIS (Ill.) 6

Bees defense delivers in home opener

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Sometimes, being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

Ask St. Ambrose football players Ryan Zitkus and Blake Wittman.

Both delivered for the Fighting Bees when they needed it most Sunday in a 14-6 nonconference victory over St. Francis (Ill.) on a snow-covered turf at the St. Vincent’s Complex.

Zitkus picked up a fumble forced by St. Ambrose defensive end Drew Ackman and returned it 27 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter and Wittman wrapped his hands around a 33-yard touchdown pass in traffic in the fourth quarter to help the Bees secure the win.

“Whenever a defense plays as well as our defense played today, you want to make it count,’’ St. Ambrose quarterback John Benckendorf said. “They played an exceptional game, not giving up any touchdowns, and to have a defense like that gives the entire team a confidence boost.’’

When the Fighting Bees weren’t busy limiting the Saints to 27 rushing yards or adding to a collection of seven tackles for loss and three sacks, they were turning St. Francis over.

St. Ambrose benefited from three interceptions and three fumble recoveries in the game, including a pair of picks by Jett Haas, an interception and a fumble recovery by Zak Alberts and a critical late-game fumble recovery Jalen Figgs.

“Everybody on defense was stepping up, making plays,’’ Zitkus said.

Coach Mike Magistrelli labeled it as good of a defensive effort as the Fighting Bees have had in a game during his 14 seasons.

“Especially when you consider the type of game this was, low scoring with a lot of situations where we needed stops,’’ Magistrelli said. “The guys answered each and every time.’’

St. Ambrose had little choice.

The Fighting Bees found themselves playing from behind a little over a minute into the game.

St. Francis’ Scott Tumilty, the son of all-time Augustana rushing leader Scott Tumilty, returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown with 13 minutes, 44 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.

The return for a score was his second in as many games this season and it gave St. Francis a lead which lasted until Zitkus got his hands on the football with 11:49 to go in the second quarter.

In a third-and-19 situation, a hit from Ackman jarred the ball out of the grasp of Saints quarterback William Ache as he was being sacked.

Zitkus scooped it up and the St. Ambrose defensive tackle ran 27 yards for the score.

“Every lineman’s dream,’’ Zitkus said. “Ackman put a great hit on the quarterback and I was just in the right place at the right time. Scoop and score, it’s a drill we run in practice all the time and it worked out.’’

Tom Gillen converted on the PAT to give the Fighting Bees a 7-6 advantage that carried into the fourth quarter.

An interception by Haas at the St. Ambrose 7-yard line in the second quarter, a missed field goal at the end of the first half and an offense which gained traction on the ground in the third quarter as conditions changed from sleet to snow helped the Bees maintain their one-point margin.

“I felt like the offense did a good job of playing to its strengths in the second half,’’ Magistrelli said. “We rotated backs. They ran well and allowed us to play the game we wanted to play.’’

St. Ambrose worked the clock while working on accumulating 159 rushing yards before putting together a 9-play, 66-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter.

Benckendorf kept things moving forward, scrambling for 27 of his game-high 76 rushing yards on a third-and-14 carry to the St. Francis’ 23-yard line.

On the next snap after a holding penalty, Wittman shook off contact in the end zone and held on for the 33-yard scoring pass thrown by Benckendorf.

“I had a couple of drops earlier in the game and that had to stop,’’ Wittman said. “It was time to make a play.’’

St. Ambrose (1-1) made several more plays to finish things off, including Figgs’ recovery of a Tumilty fumble forced by DeViann Titus-Porter and an interception by Haas in the final minute.

Eric Maffie, a sophomore who prepped at Moline, started and finished at quarterback for St. Francis (0-2), connecting on 4-of-15 passes. Ache replaced him late in the first quarter and completed 17-of-33 passes for 141 yards before exiting with an injury.

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