The tone will be set on defense.
That’s been the message since Tremaine Jackson was hired as the football coach at Colorado Mesa, and for 59 minutes and 35 seconds Saturday, the tone was most definitely set.
“We have a plan to win in our program. When I took the job I said we were going to play championship-style defense,” Jackson said after the Mavericks’ 10-7 overtime victory against Chadron State at Stocker Stadium.
Passes were broken up. Chadron State quarterback Dalton Holst was consistently pressured. Passes were batted down at the line of scrimmage, running backs stopped for little or no gain. When Holst scrambled and appeared to have some running room, linebackers closed quickly.
The defense allowed 266 total yards, only 58 rushing, and contained UCLA transfer running back Jalen Starks, who had 30 yards on 11 carries.
“Our defense has been playing hard, practicing hard this whole time,” said linebacker Logan Bayus, who made seven tackles, had one sack, two tackles for lost yardage, broke up a pass and blocked a field goal attempt. “I have faith in our defense and I still have faith in our offense. They can run the ball down people’s throat. I thought they would put more points on the board, they just came up short a couple of times, but in the end, the defense stuck it out and we came out on top.”
Clinging to a 7-0 lead with only 1:29 to play, the defense needed one more stand.
A pass interference penalty foiled that, and set up Chadron State’s tying touchdown with only 25.8 seconds to play, sending the game into overtime.
The Eagles got the ball first and had third-and-goal from the 5. Holst was looking for a receiver coming across the front of the end zone.
Instead, he found Jordan Ellis, who read the receiver and stepped in for the interception.
“We were playing man-to-man and my man didn’t really run a route,” said Ellis, a junior transfer who didn’t play until the fourth quarter. “I had the awareness to see the receiver was coming across wide open and I just made a play, took a chance and it came out great.”
The offense couldn’t pick up a first down, but put the ball in the middle of the field for Lucas Ruiz Diaz.
It had been a rough day for both kickers. Ruiz Diaz missed his first two field goal attempts, including one right before halftime, and the Mavericks blocked two of Drake Holdren’s three attempts — he missed his first.
Ruiz Diaz didn’t blink when Chadron called timeout to try to ice him, as the Eagles did twice when he missed on the final play of the first half.
“I was just trying not to think of anything, actually,” he said after his 39-yard winning field goal, the first game-winner of his career. “You start over-thinking and your steps don’t end up right or you’re not 100% focused on the kick. I was just trying to zone everything out. I didn’t hear anything, I didn’t hear the other sideline, the crowd, I didn’t hear anything.”
When his foot hit the ball he knew the game was over and was mobbed by the Mavericks at midfield.
Making the PAT after Rodriquez broke off a 61-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter got his confidence back after Ruiz Diaz said he was rattled by the second-quarter miss, a relative chip-shot for him from 28 yards out.
As for Rodriquez, his day got busier when Isaac Maestas injured his right arm on the first play of the game — Maestas had his arm in a sling on the sideline. Rodriquez carried the ball 22 times for 173 yards and the electrifying touchdown, one of two 60-plus-yard runs.
The left side of the line opened a big hole and he made one jab-step, cut to his left and was gone.
“That’s the best feeling,” Rodriquez said of seeing no defenders in front of him. “Sometimes it’s shocking. Most of the time you just put your head down and try to get three yards, four yards, but once you see that sea part, you just want to hit that hole.”
Both offenses had a hard time sustaining drives, in part because both defenses played so well. Junior quarterback Aaron Howard missed several throws but also scrambled away from pressure to make plays. He completed 17 of 37 passes for 118 yards and was intercepted once, on a ball that deflected off Dagan Rienks’ hands. Mesa ran for 228 yards.
“The defense, they’ve got my back,” Howard said. “I made some mistakes that I’ll recover from for next game and will be better. ...
“We got to the red zone and made a few mistakes and just didn’t score. We missed a couple of field goals, but that’s on me. I’ve gotta finish the drives.”
It was the first win of Howard’s career in a game that he started and played the entire game — the Mavericks rotated three quarterbacks most of last season.
“It feels great. Can’t express it,” Howard said. “My first win playing the whole game as a starter compared to last year and it feels great.”
There will be adjustments made before the trip to Black Hills State next week, but simply getting to game day was big. Winning was the icing on the cake — or maybe the sizzle on the steak.
“To even get to this point is tremendous,” Jackson said of the uncertainty of the entire season. “A lot of coaches I talked to this morning wished they were walking to the game. To get to this point is a sigh of relief. To get through and still be undefeated is even better, because we told our team we look to go whatever and 0.
“That steak will taste a little bit better being undefeated.”