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Monday, January 26, 2015

Three times the charm: Pioneers Win Third National Championship in Daytona

Thomas Broussard made an inspiring visit.

Teammates react to Broussard. (Photos by Marla Collins)
 If the surprise appearance of Big Tee didn’t ensure the St. Paul Pioneers defeated the Texas Bullets, the iron will of quarterback Cleve McCoy, wide receiver Delane Woods and the Pioneers’ defense damn sure did.

McCoy on the move.
In a dominant performance by the Pioneers offense, defense and special teams, St. Paul won its third national championship since 2009 – and second in the past three seasons – by rolling over the higher-ranked Bullets 41-14 in the USA Bowl Spring/Summer National Championship in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The Pioneers received a gigantic emotional boost at the start of the game with the appearance of lineman Thomas Broussard and his family. Broussard had recently been hospitalized with kidney failure and will probably need a kidney transplant. His visit to Florida was an unexpected joy to the 40-plus Pioneers who made the trip.

McCoy and company then made sure the happiness continued.

Juice Akins scored first Pioneers TD.
The South Carolina State graduate passed for more than 250 yards, threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more. Woods, in his first game back after breaking his collarbone earlier in the season, had more than 125 yards and a touchdown receiving, often keeping drives alive with clutch catches at the chains before striking the Bullets deep with a 4th down touchdown reception to end the first half.

Woods' touchdown to close first half.
And the Pioneers defense? Tasked with slowing the nation’s top quarterback and the Semi-Pro Offensive Player of the Year, the Pioneers defense not only got in the Bullets’ way – they nearly slammed the door shut. Texas, in running up its record to 17-0, averaged more than 40 points a game coming into the USA Bowl. St. Paul held them to 14 points. And with three interceptions, three sacks and a fumble recovery by the kickoff team, the Pioneers kept Texas from ever posing a threat.

The score was 14-0 Pioneers after the first quarter; 27-7 at halftime and 41-14 with five minutes left to play. Each time the Bullets scored, the Pioneers answered to keep momentum.

It started with linebacker Corey Brenner’s acrobatic interception on Bullets’ quarterback Justin Willis’ first pass of the game. It continued with interceptions by safeties Terry Jones and Jake Lindsey that snuffed out Bullets’ drives. And all game long, the Pioneers’ defensive line harassed and battered Willis, sacking him three times – Rob Wills, Jeff McGaster and Brandon Murdock recorded sacks – and putting him on the ground more times than could be counted.

Brenner set the stage with pick.
That was the strategy, defensive coach Jim Walsh said. “Willis was the playmaker of their offense. They ran everything through him. If we could control and contain him, we had a chance to win.”

When it looked as if the Bullets would score to narrow St. Paul’s 14-0 lead, defensive tackle Jeff McGaster snuffed out the threat. Texas had a 4th and 1 at the St. Paul 6-yard line and seemed poised for a touchdown when McGaster, the Pioneers MVP for 2014, blasted through the guard-center gap and tackled the Bullets’ ball carrier for a 3-yard loss.

Jeff McGaster stuffed Bullets' best chance.
Texas would score once more, in the second half, but they never really threatened again. Using a controlled pass rush that sought to keep Willis penned in, the Pioneers kept him from hurting them with big plays. Pioneers linebackers – Bill Quistorff, Brenner, John Robinson and Tierre Thompson – were mostly kept in coverage and asked to pursue sideline to sideline.
They did their job well.

Willis had two touchdown passes in the game. He had thrown for more than 40 during the season.

But the Pioneers’ offense proved dominant as well.

From the start, McCoy’s play was crisp and his decision-making decisive. He threw receivers open, hitting his spots with great accuracy. And when the pass was not there, he ran and hurt the Bullets with his legs.

Brandon Murdock and Devin Waters applied pressure.
Woods, in his first game back after breaking his collar bone during the regular season, looked like an NFL receiver all night. He ran great routes, came back to McCoy when the quarterback was in trouble or, as on the last play of the first half, simply streaked past the supposedly speedier Bullet defensive backs.

Woods and McCoy were named the game’s most valuable players by the USA Bowl.
But there was plenty of credit to go around. Running backs Isaac Odim, who had a touchdown run and a touchdown reception, and Riza Mahmoud, who tallied nearly 100 yards, were their clock-eating, defense bruising selves all game. Running behind fullbacks Daryl Davis and Andy Folz and a physical offensive line, Mahmoud and Odim kept the Bullets from keying on the passing attack.
Receiver Donte Pettis played both offense and defense, grabbing passes for key first downs and stopping Bullets’ receivers as a nickel back.
Heiser added another national title.

Juice Akins, a fleet receiver who was new to the Pioneers in 2014, caught McCoy’s first touchdown pass of the game to give St. Paul a 7-0 lead. Odim caught McCoy’s last touchdown pass of the game on a swing pass to close out the scoring and ensure that Head Coach Mark Heiser got his third Gatorade bath in a national championship game.

Heiser took over as head coach for the 2008 season. The Pioneers won national titles in 2009, 2012 and, now, 2014.

Kicker John Ostertag was named special teams player of the game, although other players made key contributions – including Vernon Johnson’s forced fumble that Davarus Branigan recovered to set up the Pioneers’ second touchdown.

“This really was a complete victory, by our entire team,” Heiser said afterwards. Missing several starters in key positions on defense, the Pioneers had to improvise and use players – such as tight ends Rob Wills and Eric Baumgartner – on defense.
Odim running hard.
“They really came through for us,” Heiser said.

Bill Quistorff held down the middle on D.

Mahmoud and Woods were impact players.
Jones had a pick to kill a Bullets drive.

Final score.

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