On paper it did not look good. Ripon ran 32 more plays, held the ball for 20 more minutes, got 15 more first downs, and outgained Knox by over one-hundred and 30 yards. Yet there was the Prairie Fire, down just 26-20, with the ball at the Red Hawk thirteen yard line and less than five minutes to go.
After a pass in end-zone was broken up, Knox faced a fourth and three to keep their hopes of an upset live. Senior running-back Luke Northam was called upon to extend the drive, but was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, forcing the Prairie Fire to turn the ball over on downs.
Knox could have gotten a chance to get the ball back, but the Ripon offense ate up the final minutes of the game to earn the victory.
“We played them hard and we gave ourselves an opportunity to win, we just didn’t get it done. Anytime you lose a game it hurts, but especially when you are so close at the end,” said head coach Chad Eisele.
Despite the statistical advantage, Knox had stayed with Ripon stride for stride from the start of the game.
The Red Hawks took the opening possession for a touchdown, but the Prairie Fire responded with a scoring drive of their own. After pounding the ball on the ground for most of the possession, sophomore quarterback Drew Diaz hooked up with junior wide-out Gabe Ayers for a twenty-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at 7-7.
“We are very confident in our offense. We know that we can run the ball against anybody, and that really opens up the play action,” Diaz said.
Ripon extended the lead to 17-7 midway through the second quarter but the momentum shifted when junior Michael Schoeder busted through a hole on a kickoff, taking the ball deep into Red Hawk territory.
On the first play following the return Diaz connected with senior Clark Cuthbert for a thirty-eight yard touchdown strike. The Ripon defense had bit hard on a Diaz play fake, leaving Cuthbert all alone in the end zone for his fourth score of the season.
“At that point in the game we had a lot of success running the ball,” Diaz said, “Coach called a play-action throw at the right time, and we were able to execute. We don’t really anticipate a receiver ever being that open, but when D-ends, linebackers, and corners bite on play action, someone has got to be open, it just so happened to be for a touchdown.”
Knox’s defense also came up big at the end of the first half. With less than a minute remaining Ripon moved the ball inside the Knox ten-yard line, but after three pass attempts were broken up, was forced to attempt a field goal. The Red Hawks faked the kick, trying to catch the Prairie Fire off guard, but the pass went incomplete keeping Knox within one score heading into the locker-room.
The second half opened with the teams trading one-yard touchdown runs. Ripon fullback T.J. Pierce finished the Red Hawks’ first drive of the third quarter, but Knox sophomore Derek Mortensen responded with a goal line punch in of his own. Mortensen’s run capped a twelve play, sixty-four yard drive, one which was indicative of Knox’s efficiency.
“There was really only one series where we weren’t effective,” Eisele said, “Drew was pretty efficient in throwing the ball and he made good decisions. I think we did pretty well with our limited attempts.”
Attempts were limited in large part due to a nineteen play, sixty-five yard drive that Ripon used to chew up nine minutes of the third and fourth quarters. But the Red Hawks had to settle for another field goal try as stops from the likes of senior defensive captain Ellioit Madison (ten tackles for the game) kept the Red Hawks out of the endzone.
“[Elliot] is a very good football player, I think he is as good as anybody in our league. When he gives the effort play-in-play-out he is a monster out there,” Eisele said.
With Knox coming up just short in their final drive, the field goal proved to be the game’s final scoring play.
Despite the result Eisele still was encouraged by the team’s performance. “I was very excited with the improvement from last week to this week, I think this will set us up for some victories.”
Knox (0-5, 0-4 MWC) will have its next shot to erase the zero from the win column this Saturday when they take on the Grinnell Pioneers (3-2, 2-2 MWC) in a road MWC contest. The Prairie Fire will be looking to duplicate last year’s performance, a 31-21 triumph that would ultimately be Knox’s lone victory last season.