The Prairie Fire football team was an unstoppable force of will in their 28-25 victory on Saturday, shoving their collective foot down the throat of the Lawrence University Vikings. It was an amazing victory, with impressive play on both sides, not to mention the most special of formations — the special teams.
“It’s great to get a win,” said Coach Andy Gibbons. “It was huge for the team after five real tough weeks.” The Fire, in winning, were able to break a five-game losing streak, giving them the chance to head back in the right direction.
The game was a defensive battle from the beginning, as the teams kicked back and forth to each other, interspersing this with a couple Lawrence fumbles and an interception for Knox. The first quarter ended, still with no score, and with both teams ready to get it going.
The second quarter was something of a reversal of fortune for the Prairie Fire, a team that has generally gotten beat in that period. In the 15 minutes of football time that passed, the Knox offense exploded, scoring 21 points while holding the Vikings to only 12, and walked into the locker room at the half with a commanding lead. The Fire, who started the quarter with good field position, took quick advantage of it, as senior quarterback Mike Kizior punched a one-yard run in for the touchdown. Senior kicker Jack Dippold, unlike his counterpart on the Lawrence team, was able to make all his points thereafter, kicking four on the day, while the Lawrence kickers (there were three of them) made only one kick, which ultimately doomed them. Most impressive offensively was a touchdown pass by sophomore quarterback Bill Meyer to junior wide out Evan Massey, a 35-yard jump ball that landed softly in Massey’s hands. Despite the offensive dominance the team laid down in this quarter, which also helped to increase the offensive total for the half to 351 total yards, senior defensive lineman Rodger Buckwalter suffered an apparent ankle injury and had to leave the game. Despite this setback, though, it was an elated Prairie Fire team that walked into the locker room at the half.
“It wasn’t easy,” noted Gibbons, “but our offense was great, and our defense was, well, good enough to win.”
Despite what Gibbons said, there were some shining moments for the defense, especially in the first half. Sophomore defensive back Danny Salvato had an incredible game, tied for the lead of the team with senior defensive end Aaron Juarez, who also had a sack, with 5.5 tackles. Also great was senior nose tackle Chris Johnson, who was a disruptive force up front, making life difficult for the Lawrence offensive line.
One other observation any watcher noticed during the second half was the emergence of Knox’s punter, senior Kevin Malone. Malone punted three times, averaging 40 yards per punt, downing one inside the Viking’s 20-yard line.
The third quarter was almost a letdown for the crowd, as Knox was held scoreless, and allowed a touchdown to Lawrence to shorten the lead to two, at 21-19. It was a nerve-wracking time for the Fire faithful, though Knox did get an actual option working, with several pitches to another back by the quarterback netting solid yardage for the Fire. Senior Mike Kizior continued to be a hard-nosed rusher, punching up the middle on several occasions to make plays happen and convert first downs when Knox needed him to. Meyer was no slouch himself, taking advantage of several sweeps and short tosses, and his mixing in of the pass is getting better and better. His line for the day was 6-13 for 125 yards and a touchdown.
The fourth quarter was tough going for the Fire, who entered the period with only a two-point lead. After being stopped on the first three downs, the Vikings went for the fake, but the play was blown up by sophomore Calvin Zirkle and senior Tighe Burke. It was a big boost and gave Knox great field position, of which the Fire took full advantage. The ensuing drive ended with a touchdown run by senior Grant Guimond, who took in a well-timed Meyer pitch for the short gain to the end zone. Lawrence threatened again, scoring with over six minutes left, but Knox went into ball-control mode, and they held on to make the best play in the book — the kneel-down. 28-25 is a beautiful thing, and all of Galesburg felt the euphoria pouring out of the Knosher Bowl.
In fitting fashion, the Performer of the Week was senior offensive lineman Lucas Leckrone. Linemen never get the love they deserve, and they did all the real work against the Vikings, as Knox topped 500 yards in total offense for the first time since 2002. Without guys like Leckrone, who have no stats kept of their work, this would never happen.
“They (Lawrence) played hard too,” said Gibbons. “We just made more plays. And our special teams was excellent. So were our coverage teams. Like I’ve said all season, if we play solid in all three teams, we can win it. Let’s just carry it to the rest of the season.”
The team will take this feeling to Carroll College on Oct. 25, and interestingly enough, they play under the lights. The game starts at 6 p.m., which is odd for any college football team at the Division-III level.
“It’s like being back in high school again,” said Gibbons. “Hopefully we can just go out there and take it from them.”
Hopefully, the team will play the way they can and not like a bunch of high schoolers.
Knox returns home for Homecoming on Nov. 1 for a 1 p.m. contest against Lake Forest.