Even as Dakota Wesleyan University allowed more than 50 points for a fifth 30-plus point loss this season, the first half of Saturday’s 56-21 defeat to Morningside (Iowa) can be an area the Tigers (1-5) hone in on during a now-cemented third consecutive losing season.
The Tigers trailed 21-7 at the break, but it didn’t seem as overmatched like a year prior when it trailed by 27 points en route to a 69-0 loss.
They got off the field by forcing a punt and two of their four turnovers, and even against the NAIA’s best, it had a chance to make it a one-possession game numerous times. Trevor Lambert missed a 35-yard field goal on its first drive, and then DWU stalled on 4th-and-2 from Morningside’s 7-yard line.
“The reality of the situation is for a half our guys played extremely hard. We made some plays. We converted some third downs. We got off the field defensively,” DWU coach Ross Cimpl said. “. … The execution and being able to do that against the best team in the country should be something our guys can build on and focus on and hopefully put an emphasis on getting things cleaned up and not make as many mistakes.”
Arguably nothing in the first half stood out more than how much trouble Mitchell native Spencer Neugebauer gave one of the Great Plains Athletic Conference’s top defenses. He caught eight passes for 135 yards and a touchdown before the break, finishing with 10 catches and 149 yards as Morningside blitzed more in the second half.
He could’ve had a couple of more touchdowns if not for overthrows when he sprinted behind Morningside’s secondary. Still, deep posts over the middle set up his shorter receptions, as the Mustangs remained on their heels whenever he touched the ball.
“He’s a guy that everybody on the field is going to know where he’s at,” Cimpl said. “… That was a huge point of being able to keep them off balance.”
Zachary Lester also deserves credit for his 29-for-50, 305-yard and two-touchdown performance, albeit a pair of interceptions spoiled an otherwise solid outing. He didn’t start the week prior due to being quarantined for the prior week of practice, but it’s clear DWU’s best offense comes when he’s slinging the ball all over the field.
Lester has completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 1,063 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions, as he’s attempted 42 or more passes in back-to-back starts.
Meanwhile, Jamin Arend’s carries have dipped from 18 per game through the first two weeks to 10.5 per game over the last four weeks. The Tigers still-evolving offensive line struggled whenever Morningside blitzed, as the Mustangs recorded 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
“Having (left tackle) T.J. Benton back in the lineup helps with experience on the line,” Cimpl said. “… I think it’s building a rapport with guys — offensively and defensively. Understanding where guys are at, where they need to be and continuing to work on that as a group.”
Improving on both lines will be key for the Tigers in the final three weeks. Arnijae Ponder gashed DWU for 159 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries, while Anthony Sims gained 59 yards on six rushes. The lack of pressure on Joe Dolincheck set the table for three touchdown tosses against DWU’s aggressive man-to-man coverage.
Even as DWU played man against one of the top receiving corps in the conference, it showed progress with how it disguised some of its coverages and Nate Rupprecht intercepted a pass.
Allowing big plays remains an issue, though. Morningside didn’t have 80-yard touchdown runs this year, but 30-yard chunks added up to 9.8 yards per play.
Heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. contest against Briar Cliff (Iowa) at Joe Quintal Field, Cimpl wants to keep seeing the same aggressiveness, even if it turns into big plays for the opposition at times.
“Overall we want our guys to be aggressive,” Cimpl said. “We don’t want to change that part of what we’re doing.”