September 30th, 2010

With arguably the two toughest games already behind them, the John Carroll University football team was more than ready for Homecoming 2010 against Marietta College. While the defense had to hold off a late fourth quarter push from the visiting Pioneers, JCU won their first game of the season, 24-18.

The Blue Streaks (1-2, 1-1 in the Ohio Athletic Conference) improve to 7-1 in Homecoming games (including four consecutive victories) played at Don Shula Stadium since the facility opened for play in 2003. The Pioneers (1-2, 0-2 in the Ohio Athletic Conference) have struggled against JCU, to say the least. The Blue Streaks are the only team that Marietta has played at least four times in school history and never defeated. The Blue Streaks lead the all-time series 22-0-1.

It was not the start that head coach Regis Scafe’s team was hoping for, however. On the Blue Streaks first play from scrimmage, an end-around play resulted in a fumble and a turnover. Turnovers have plagued the offense all year, and an early turnover was the last thing the Blue Streaks needed.

The defense responded well though and bent but did not break, only allowing Marietta to convert for one first down. A 33-yard field goal by Kyle Cardwell put the Pioneers ahead by three. That was the only lead Marietta held all day.

The ensuing drive instilled a sense of confidence in the Blue Streaks offense that lingered throughout the game, particularly in the first half. Led by an explosive day from senior running back Mark Elsaesser, JCU’s offense rushed for 115 yards in the first half after averaging 110 yards per game over the first two weeks.

Elsaesser highlighted a 10-play, 67-yard scoring drive with a 41-yard scamper down the right sideline. The drive was eventually capped off by a four-yard touchdown plunge from senior fullback Corey Castro.

JCU scored 17 unanswered points on their three consecutive offensive possessions following the Marietta field goal. Sophomore quarterback Mike Locke was instrumental in leading the offense to, easily, its best statistical day this season.

“We knew we had something to prove coming off of two straight losses to open the season,” Locke said after the game. “We wanted to show everyone what we were really capable of doing.”

Locke finished the first half 12 of 16 for 159 yards as he picked apart the defense on three straight scoring drives. His main target in the first half was fifth-year senior Frank Ross. Ross caught seven balls for 73 yards in the first half but was limited to only one reception in the second half.

“We are a great running team,” Locke said. “When we put on rushing performances like the one against Marietta, it forces the defense to come up and attack our run game. In turn, that leaves holes in the secondary.”

While the Blue Streaks have not had a 100-yard rusher since week 10 against Otterbein in the 2006 season, Elsaesser was extremely effective. Had he not been forced to dive on a fumble that resulted in a 3-yard loss late in the game, he would have finished with 92 rushing yards. His team-high 15 carries netted 89 yards on the ground. The senior amassed 164 all-purpose yards as he also had four receptions for 75 yards.

Locke’s 3-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter put the Blue Streaks on top 14-3. After the Pioneers turned the ball over on downs, John Carroll marched down the field and converted on a field goal. The 23-yard boot came from reigning second team All-OAC kicker Brad Marchese’s first field goal of the year.

John Carroll put one more drive together that could have resulted in more points before the half, but Pioneers’ defensive lineman Joe Terrell picked off a pass in the red-zone on a third down play with 24 seconds to go that halted the Blue Streaks’ drive.

Although the offense played very well in the first half, the defense was equally impressive in holding the Pioneers to only a field goal. Fifth-year senior defensive end Chuck Iheama combined with sophomore defensive tackle Mike Green for 16 tackles and three sacks. After the game, Iheama talked about their teamwork.

“Honestly, we cut down our mistakes because we improved our communication,” said Iheama. “The last couple games we [as a defense] weren’t communicating as much as we need to. We really made a serious effort to make sure we all got the calls and made sure to keep repeating them as well.”

The teams went into the locker room and the Blue Streaks felt comfortable and confident. The offense was clicking on all cylinders and it certainly looked like John Carroll was in cruise control over Marietta once again.

But the Pioneers came out of the locker room with a renewed sense of energy, and they pieced together a 13-play, 58-yard drive that eventually resulted in three points.

The Blue Streaks response was loud and clear, racking up four first downs on the way to an 8-yard Locke touchdown run. With 5:43 left in the third quarter, the Blue Streaks had a cozy 24-3 lead.

That’s where the tide began to turn on John Carroll.

After forcing Marietta to punt, the Blue Streaks had the ball deep in their own territory. Locke was drilled in the backfield and the fumble that resulted was recovered by the defense. A few plays later, Tevin Dones cashed in the Pioneers first touchdown of the game from three yards out. The two point conversion failed, however, and left the score 24-12.

John Carroll’s offense couldn’t jump start things on the next drive either, picking up only one first down before reigning All-OAC punter Karl Roshong gave the ball back to the Pioneers.

Pioneers’ quarterback Andrew Keller finally got his aerial attack to work to his advantage, as he led the offense down the field in a little more than three minutes. Keller, also an excellent scrambler, finished the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run. Thankfully, the extra point was blocked by JCU junior linebacker C.J. Seitzinger, leaving the score at 24-18.

Back-to-back fumbled snaps forced the Blue Streaks to punt away the ball yet again with 1:28 remaining in regulation.

John Carroll’s mantra this season is to work on finishing games better. Entering the year, 14 of their last 30 contests were decided by eight points or fewer. In those 14 games, the Blue Streaks were only 4-10. After losing games last year by virtually every dramatic ending possible (including a Hail Mary as time expired), everyone inside the stadium held their breath.

But the JCU defense stepped up in a big way, as Marietta only earned one first down in that final drive. Four straight incomplete passes from Keller, who finished the day 27 of 49 for 289 yards, brought the Blue Streak offense back on to the field.

Locke and his troops lined up in victory formation and took a knee to run out the clock for the first time this season as John Carroll escaped with the 24-18 win.

“We do a lot of great things, but our biggest problem so far this season has been turning the ball over,” said Locke. “Our goal for next week will be to come out like we did against Marietta and eliminate the turnovers.”

The first win is often the hardest to get, but it meant a little more to the team that it came on Homecoming weekend.

“Our coaches always let us know that Homecoming is a week for alumni to come and watch a game. To get the win with people from past seasons, including guys I use to play with on hand, makes the win more special.”

The Blue Streaks will travel south on Saturday as they head to Westerville, Ohio to take on nationally-ranked Otterbein College.

After a very exciting game last year that nearly resulted in the upset of the year for JCU, the Blue Streaks will look to knock off the Cardinals starting at 1:30 p.m.