By Cassie Kickert
Running back Riza Mahmoud has been a clutch player all season for the St. Paul Pioneers. When his team needs him the most, his legs seem to shift into overdrive, gaining yards where there were none before. It was no different Saturday against the Lake Superior Rage in Duluth. In the absence of starting quarterback Cleveland McCoy, Mahmoud quite literally took over the game.
Though the Rage scored first on a Keldric Stokes pass to Dre Sherill, the Pioneers also put three points on the scoreboard on kicker John Ostertag’s field goal. After that, it didn’t take long for the Pioneers to score again. This time, it was a touchdown – when two longtime Pioneers, backup quarterback Bryan Trulen and receiver/tight end Joe Ubani, connected on a 33-yard pass that put the team ahead by four, 10-6.
Trulen stepped up himself, managing the game well in McCoy’s absence, according to offensive coordinator Rob Neumann. He threw for 148 yards and the touchdown to Ubani.
But the Rage weren’t willing to give up just yet, sparking a furious second quarter that put them into what seemed a comfortable lead.
The Pioneers defense has overcome numerous injuries this season. However, Lionel Lamarre’s absence, in particular, seemed to have an impact on the game. The next two Rage touchdowns would also come via the passing game, the first one coming when Stokes threw to Hollis Dukes. Just a few minutes later, Sherill caught his second touchdown pass of the day.
Linebacker Corey Brenner said the defense is resilient. It had to be.
“No matter who is on the field, we will do whatever it takes to get the Win. I know if we come out flat like we did against the Rage, it will not make our job easy, but I am confident that we will come out with a win if all 11 guys on the field do THEIR job,” he said.
Pioneers players and coaches were starting to get frustrated. The frustration only mounted when, on the team’s next offensive play, as Trulen attempted to pitch the ball, a Rage player knocked it down, picked up the ball and ran into the end zone for yet another touchdown. That made the score 27-10 Rage – with six minutes still to go before halftime. It could have been time to panic.
Or, you could think of it as time for Mahmoud to take over
He had 35 rushing yards on the next drive, including a six yard touchdown run to bring the Pioneers within ten points at halftime, 27-17.
He and running back Vernon Johnson, together with a long pass from Trulen to Justin Miles, brought the Pioneers inside the Rage 10 at which point, you guessed it, Mahmoud cut outside and ran along the sideline for another Pioneers score – and a 27-24 game.
Suddenly, because of Mahmoud’s speed and elusiveness, the Pioneers were within three points. Mahmoud said he knew he was going to have to step up his game Saturday for the Pioneers to win. He did that and more, running for 198 yards. In total, he had over 300 all-purpose yards on the day.
Brenner got in on the scoring action when he intercepted Rage quarterback David White and ran it all the way back for a touchdown. Then the Pioneers widened the lead to 11, 38-27, when Mahmoud outran everybody on his way to his third touchdown of the day, running this one 64 yards for the score.
This is what Mahmoud had to say about the play:
“That just unfolded beautifully. We misdirected the guys one way then a hole opened up on the back side and I saw it and just went with it. Blocking was beautiful today,” he said.
After a late Rage touchdown by running back Chris Henagin, Mahmoud showed he can play defense too when he emphatically tackled Hollis Dukes late in the game. The Rage battled to inside the Pioneers 10-yard-line, but time ran out on their comeback effort.
Mahmoud was named offensive player of the game. Defensive player of the game was cornerback Brock Keaton, who had an interception and several key passes defended. Ostertag was named special teams player of the game.
Brenner said that everyone doing their job is what brought the Pioneers the victory Saturday against the Rage.
“Everyone on the Pioneers can play ball, we just all need to be on the same level so that we have no loose ends. That is what got us the victory on Saturday vs. the Rage,” he said.
The final step in preparation for the playoffs comes this Saturday at Concordia’s Seafoam Stadium when the Pioneers face the North Bank Bulls for the second time this season. The Pioneers shut the Bulls out, 30-0, in Cottage Grove on June 15. This Saturday is also Military Appreciation Day at Concordia. All current and former military personnel will be admitted for free.