Momentum is on Ottawa’s side after starting 2-0 for the first time in eight years.
With a 29-27 win Saturday in its home opener over the University of Saint Mary, the Ottawa University football program sits tied with conference newcomer Avila University atop the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference standings. While the 2018-19 season is still young, it marks a change in direction for a program that has suffered two consecutive losing seasons.
Up next, the Braves hit the road for the first of two straight away games. They play 7 p.m. Saturday at Bethany College (1-2, 1-1 KCAC) in Lindsborg.
“We are going to head back to the board and hopefully be able to improve on this week,” Kent Kessinger, OU head football coach, said after the Saint Mary win.
The Swedes have beaten the Ottawa just twice in the past 11 years, one of those coming by a 30-21 margin last season. Bethany is coming off a 31-28 come-frome-behind home win this past Saturday against Bethel College — a team OU topped in the season opener 42-12. The Swedes scored the tying touchdown with four minutes left, and freshman kicker Fernando Avila-Castro put the game-winning field goal through the uprights with 47 seconds left.
OTTAWA 29, SAINT MARY 27
The Braves had a thriller of their own Saturday at Braves Field in Ottawa.
James Reeder, sophomore running back, punched the ball in for a one-yard touchdown to give OU a 20-6 lead with 12:42 left in the third quarter.
The Spires came surging back with three unaswered touchdowns in less than seven minutes of game time. Quarterback Drew Cortez found Jordan Hill for a 23-yard touchdown, Demontrel Wilson ran for a three-yard score and Cortez tossed the go-ahead touchdown from 29 yards out to Bryan Barnhart to give Saint Mary its first lead of the game with 3:52 left in the third, 27-20.
Ottawa’s offense struck back with a seven-play, 60-yard drive, capped off on a wild 13-yard touchdown pass from Conner Kaegi, junior quarterback, to Darrion Dillard, senior wide receiver. Kaegi tossed the ball across the field where Dillard hauled it in off a tip. That marked Dillard’s second touchdown reception on a night where he collected 10 receptions for 138 yards. Through two games, Dillard leads the KCAC with four touchdown receptions, and is second in total receiving yards with 300.
Despite the score, the Braves still trailed 27-26 after Nick Rodriguez, senior kicker, missed the extra point. He got his redemption on Ottawa’s next offensive drive. Following a Saint Mary punt to start the fourth quarter, OU put together a 13-play, 63-yard drive ending with a 24-yard Rodriguez field goal. The drive took 5:15 off the clock and the score proved to be the deciding points.
With 9:26 still on the clock, the Brave defense was forced to come up big. One play into the ensuing Spire drive, Trey Wheeler, sophomore defensive back, picked off Cortez. Saint Mary had two mores chances on offense to score, the first drive ending in a three-and-out and the second with a game-clinching sack and fumbled forced by Isaiah Veal and recovered by Jacob Garcia, both sophomore defensive linemen.
“Coach [Thomas] Pearson had a tremendous game plan going for us,” Kessinger said. “Our kids pinned their ears back on the defensive line. I saw those guys in there harassing the quarterback. That is something we talked about — we are going to have to put pressure on him, we have to put him in a spot where he doesn’t feel comfortable throwing the ball. He got away with some throws and made some big plays just kind of ducking and chucking, but I think the guys did a really good job. We had some pressures, got into some different fronts and if we gave a helmet sticker out to coaches, [coach Pearson] is definitely getting one along with the rest of the defensive staff.”
Ottawa finished with six sacks on defense. While both teams had four turnovers, OU’s offense proved more efficient. Ottawa gained 406 total offensive yards to Saint Mary’s 305. Ottawa was also 9-18 on third down compared to the Spires’ 5-15.
Kaegi was 26-46 passing for 286 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He added 42 rushing yards on 11 carries. Reeder led OU on the ground with 61 yards on 22 carries and a score.