By Cassie Kickert
Heading into a potentially colossal battle between two former National Champions, the St. Paul Pioneers were nonetheless confident they could topple the visiting Des Moines Blaze on Saturday at Sea Foam Stadium in St. Paul.
Turns out, they would came up an inch short.
After a 2012 season in which the Pioneers did not lose a game – including winning every home contest at Sea Foam – St. Paul now is an unexpected 0-2 after two pre-season contests. The Pioneers head to Kimberly, Wis., this week to open their NEFL regular season against the Fox Valley Force, the second time the teams will have played in three weeks.
And, for the second time in this young season, the Pioneers started off a bit lackluster – letting an opponent take a first half lead. St. Paul actually scored first, on a safety, when linebacker Bill Quistorff tackled the Blaze ball carrier in the end zone following excellent coverage by the Pioneers kickoff team.
Des Moines would storm right back, however, when the Pioneers fumbled shortly after receiving the free kick. On a 4th and 15 deep in Pioneers territory, the Blaze opted against the field goal try and instead lined up to go for it. Blaze quarterback DeMareo Darrah tossed a touchdown on the play to wideout Randy Blackford – one of three Blackford scores on the day.
The Pioneers answered with a touchdown of their own just a few minutes later when Spriggs threw to Delane Woods, who ran 24 yards to pay dirt, making the score 9-7 Pioneers. The rest of the first half, however, would be all Blaze.
Des Moines scored again before the first quarter ended when Blackford caught his second touchdown of the day, taking this one 22 yards. Then, shortly before the two minute warning, the Blaze would score again after a short Pioneers punt. With the Pioneers defense on its heels, the halftime score was 20-9, Blaze.
In the second half, the Pioneers seemed to regain some of their swagger. Starting with a couple of Spriggs passes – first to Cleveland McCoy, then to Woods – the Pioneers offense started clicking. Spriggs got in on the action too, running the ball to the Blaze 28 yard line. But two incomplete passes followed, stalling the Pioneers momentum and giving the ball back to the Blaze.
Blackford scored yet again for the Blaze, going 43 yards, his longest reception of the day.
Then, with their backs literally to the wall, the Pioneers defense decided that enough was enough.
With the Blaze threatening to score again at the Pioneers 13-yard line, defensive tackle Jeff McGaster chased Darrah down and jarred the ball loose. Linebacker John Robinson scooped it up and ran 80 yards for a touchdown – his second TD in the first two games.
The Pioneers defense wasn’t done. On the next series, defensive back Terry Jones stepped in front of a Darrah pass and, a few plays later, Pioneers running back Brian Holmes punched it in from the 1-yard line. The Pioneers two-point conversion try failed, making the score 27-22 Blaze.
Suddenly, there was hope.
Still, the skilled and experienced Blaze offense, which gave the Pioneers fits all day, was not ready to fold. They drove the ball deep again into Pioneers territory, setting up the possibility of another score. But a Blaze pass into the end zone was snared by Jones. He took a knee, giving the ball to the Pioneers at the 20 yard line with the two-minute warning and two timeouts.
Then, after a penalty pushed the Pioneers back to their own 10-yard line, the offense started running its two-minute drill. On third down, Spriggs hit receiver Sean Lewis with a 36-yard pass to near midfield.
When asked what made the last two drives different, Spriggs said he believes the team does better under pressure. He also said the offense needs to stop putting pressure on themselves at the beginning of the game and just play football. He added that the offense needs to help the defense more as well.
“We [have] to do more at the beginning of the game so we can keep our defense fresh by making plays and first downs. We need to stop putting pressure on ourselves in the beginning of the game and just play football. That’s what we did at the end of the game—just play football [and] it showed.”
Another pass to Woods brought the Pioneers to the Blaze 40 yard line. Spriggs passed to Woods again, bringing the team to the Blaze 20 yard line. Then, when all hope seemed lost after two incomplete passes, Spriggs took it upon himself and ran it all the way to the Blaze 8 yard line.
Eight yards stood between the Pioneers and victory. Three incomplete passes set up the dramatic fourth down play. Spriggs rolled to his right and appeared oh-so-close to scoring. But the officials ruled he was shoved out of bounds an inch shy of the front corner of the end zone with 3 seconds left on the clock.
Des Moines took a knee to end the game.
When asked about the Pioneers unfamiliar defensive struggles so far this season, Jones – a veteran of several seasons from Concordia University-St. Paul, said the team still is working to get nearly 20 new players acquainted with the Pioneers’ system.
He said in order to beat the Force this coming Saturday, ”we have to play defense, stay sound [and] get back to our roots.”