TERRE HAUTE —
Jeff Sokol hasn’t been a college head coach for very long, so it’s probably safe to say that Saturday’s Rose-Hulman game was one of the tougher losses he’s ever endured — or ever hopes to endure.
“You score more touchdowns than the other team, you score more points … it’s heartbreaking,” the Engineers’ second-year mentor said after a 29-28 loss to visiting Kalamazoo in the season opener for both Division III teams.
Rose entered the final period trailing 29-15, but got freshman wide receiver Jacob Dye open for a 40-yard touchdown pass from Mitch Snyder just 16 seconds into the quarter. A successful extra point cut the lead to seven points.
After an exchange of three-and-out offensive series, the visiting Hornets marched into Rose-Hulman territory threatening to score the clinching touchdown, but a sack by Dean Griffin — he had 21⁄2 of those — stopped the drive. Gray Vreeland, a surprising weapon for Kalamazoo all evening, lofted a punt that died on the 8-yard line.
With less than eight minutes left in the game, the Engineers marched to what looked to be a tying touchdown. On the 11th play of the drive, Snyder lofted a ball into the end zone and Dye came down with it. The official standing nearest the play signaled touchdown, and the Engineers brought their kicking team onto the field.
Not so fast. After a discussion among the officials, the play was overruled, the six points taken off the scoreboard, and Rose faced a third-and-7. Two incomplete passes turned the ball over to Kalamazoo.
“I still haven’t received a good explanation,” Sokol said after the game when asked about that play. “The official at the front pylon saw a good catch … but then someone came in and said they saw [Dye’s] foot on the [out-of-bounds] line.
“I’ve never seen a team lined up for a PAT and had the referee take the touchdown off the board.”
The Engineers may have been discouraged, but they weren’t finished. They forced the Hornets to punt, using their final timeout to prevent Kalamazoo from running the clock on fourth down, and got the ball back at the 40-yard line with 2:29 left.
Rose-Hulman, you may remember, has an All-America running back named Kyle Kovach. The Hornets had certainly remembered, and for about 30 of Kovach’s carries Saturday night they’d bottled him up. And with the clock threatening to run, it seemed the last thing Rose would do would be to run its man up the middle.
On second-and-10, however, the Engineers did just that. Kovach barreled into a couple of potential tacklers, kept his feet churning, and was suddenly on his way to the end zone, a 60-yard scoring run to go with a 65-yard breakaway he’d had in the second quarter. One of the longtime observers in the Rose-Hulman pressbox surmised it was the best run in Rose-Hulman history.
The crowd was ecstatic, the band was playing loudly … and the Engineers messed up the extra point, a high snap leading to a bobbled hold and a desperation pass. After a mad scramble that failed to recover a nicely executed onside kickoff, the Engineers were unable to get the ball back.
Rose-Hulman had the lead three times in the first half, starting with a safety recorded on Kalamazoo’s second play from scrimmage. Lineman D.J. Lawson led the charge as running back Dimeko Price was smothered in the end zone.
That play may have been quarterback Aaron McGuire’s only bad decision on a read-option play, however — had the quarterback kept the ball, he might have gone 97 yards to the end zone — and McGuire soon proved difficult for the Engineers to contain (246 yards passing, 111 rushing despite 35 yards lost in sacks).
Kalamazoo took its first lead after turnovers on consecutive plays gave the Hornets the ball at the Rose 6-yard line later in the first quarter. Rose countered with a 70-yard scoring drive, Snyder completing a fourth-down touchdown pass to Dye, but the Engineers missed this extra point on a kick pulled wide left and the score was 8-7.
Kalamazoo went back on top 14-8 early in the second quarter, McGuire capping a 73-yard drive with a 23-yard fourth-down run — untouched — through the Rose defense. Later in the quarter, however, Kovach broke free for his 65-yard score and a 15-14 advantage for the home team.
The visitors failed to pad their lead on their next drive, missing a 19-yard field goal after having second-and-goal at the 2-yard line. But McGuire scored on a 27-yard run with 54 seconds left in the first half and then on a 1-yard run in the third quarter, a 40-yard drive set up by an Engineer fumble.
“It wasn’t the officials’ fault [that we lost],” Sokol said afterward. “We played less than our best football in the first half.”
Kovach, despite the defensive concentration, still rushed for 223 yards on 34 carries while adding six pass receptions and four punt returns.
“We figured we could keep taking our shots [with Kovach] and eventually he’d pop one,” Sokol said later. “We tried to take advantage of our freshman receiver [Dye, a two-time all-stater at Tipton, had four catches for 73 yards plus the touchdown that was taken away] and get big plays out of Kyle.”
A down side, he added, was special teams performances.
“We gave up a first down [on an 13-yard fourth-and-10 run by the 240-pound Vreeland] and we missed two extra points that really hurt us,” the coach said. “We need to improve [special teams] all across the board.”
Next game for Rose is at Danville, Ky., against former Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference rival Centre.
“Centre won a playoff game last year, and it’s a long trip,” Sokol said. “But our kids are hungry and pissed off right now, and we’ll try to take advantage of that.”