Mesa defense limits Western's Ekeler in season-opening win
GUNNISON — The names were a little different than what Colorado Mesa expected to see about a month ago, but the objective was the same.
Don’t let Austin Ekeler have a big day.
“This whole week we’ve been preaching to stop him, just get 11 heads to the ball,” said one of those new guys on defense, middle linebacker Alec Barcellos, after the Mavericks did just that in their 34-14 season-opening RMAC victory over Western State at the Mountaineer Bowl.
“I was trying to be as physical as I could, just get downhill and try to fill my gap, because I knew everybody else would do their job.”
Barcellos stepped into the rather large shoes of Tom Saager.
With Saager leaning on crutches, a cast on his right foot, Barcellos ably helped the Maverick defense keep tabs on Ekeler, recording a team-high 11 tackles. With Saager giving him pointers throughout the game, Barcellos learned plenty in his first college game.
“He actually called me over and said ‘If the quarterback is shaking his hands, he’s passing the ball.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, watch,’ ‘’ Barcellos said. “Sure enough, (Brett Arrivey started shaking his hands) and I’m like, ‘It’s a pass.’ I said, ‘Thanks, Tom, you’d better be at every game.’ He’s the eyes behind my head.”
The return of outside linebacker Marcus Cross, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, was also felt — the senior had 10 tackles.
Ekeler rushed for 110 yards and one touchdown, but never really shook loose — his biggest gain was 12 yards, even though he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
“He made a couple of guys miss sometimes. Sometimes you can be sound in what you’re doing and in the open field, you have a guy who makes you miss,” CMU coach Russ Martin said. “That’s being a good athlete.
“We did not want to give up any big plays in the pass game and I thought our secondary and linebackers played very well from that standpoint, and overall we played very well up front.”
Instead, it was CMU breaking big plays, with quarterback Sean Rubalcaba completing nearly 73 percent of his passes, 24 of 33, for 326 yards and one touchdown. It was his highest completion rate at CMU.
Two passes gained more than 50 yards, with Marcus Hines getting the Mavs on the board with the first big play of the day.
“Oh, man, we’ve just been working hard and we were trying to break through,” said Hines, who had 10 catches for 114 yards. “That play was the breakthrough for our offense. This year the offense is trying to get it done, every level, passing and running.”
On third-and-5 from near midfield, Hines got free over the middle for a 53-yard touchdown less than three minutes into the game.
The Mavericks settled into a nice tempo on offense, especially after the first two series. Rubalcaba was in control, taking what the defense gave him.
He ran only six times, picking up 14 yards on one play when two Western defenders were closing in on him. Instead of being sandwiched, he slipped between them and took off, setting up David Tann’s 14-yard touchdown run for a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter.
Tann rushed for 82 yards on 14 carries, averaging 5.9 a carry, with Jonathon Beverly running for 81 yards on 11 carries, an average of 7.4 yards a play.
On the final series of the first half, Rubalcaba showed how much confidence he has in the offense, first hitting Justin Brown for a 16-yard gain on first down. After two incomplete passes, he rolled to his right as Western put on a good backside rush. Rubalcaba got rid of the ball just before he was hit.
Hines came back for the ball and gained 14 yards.
Mesa settled for a 17-yard field goal by Ryan Sheehan as time expired in the half, up 17-7.
Early in the second quarter, CMU linebacker J Henderson stopped Ekeler one yard short of a first down on fourth down.
Mesa sensed it was big-play time, and Rubalcaba found Josh Brown on a short out route that turned into the longest play of the game. The speedy sophomore juked his way for 62 yards, running from the right side to the left and nearly breaking it for a touchdown.
Instead, he was stopped at the 9. On fourth and goal from the 1, backup quarterback Eystin Salum scored.
Ekeler scored his only touchdown of the game in the first quarter on a 3-yard run, capping an eight-play, 54-yard drive to tie the game at 7-7.
After Tann’s TD, Western backup quarterback Cameron Shumway capped a 13-play drive with a 3-yard run, giving the Mountaineers a chance down 10, 24-14.
Sheehan kicked a 21-yard field goal with 1:01 to play in the third quarter for a 27-14 lead.
Tann’s second touchdown, a 17-yard run, sealed the victory with 3:45 to play.
“We would have liked to get David in right before the half,” Martin said of Tann’s 37-yard reception, getting run out of bounds at the 1 with less than 10 seconds to play. “But that was a great two-minute drive.
“They’ve got the experience now, they expect to do that.”