By Keith McMillan,
BRIDGEWATER, Va. -- If anyone is going to lob claims of intervention after Bridgewater's first home playoff game since last season's infamous clock operator fiasco, one could only point a finger at the Divine this time.
Bridgewater survived a 259-yard rushing outing from King's tailback Richard Jackson when Matt VonTanhausen's 32-yard field goal attempt caught a gust of wind and fell about a foot short of the crossbar, preserving the top-seeded, No. 2-ranked Eagles' 19-17 second-round NCAA playoff victory.
"When he first hit it and it didn't start going [end over end], I knew we had a chance," said Bridgewater head coach Michael Clark of the kick, attempted with 57 seconds left. "If that gust of wind hadn't come in, as ugly as it was, it might have slipped through."
"It looked close," said Jackson. "I thought he had it. It looked like it was going to curve back in, but I didn't think it was going to come up short.
Bridgewater quarterback Robbie Jenkins said the kick "just hit a wall."
If not for the wind, King's (9-3) could have taken a 20-19 lead and possibly advanced to play Trinity (Texas), a second-round winner over Washington & Jefferson. Instead the Eagles (11-0) will host the Tigers (12-0) next Saturday.
The Monarchs had marched 66 yards in 15 plays to set themselves up with a fourth-and-8 at the 15-yard line. The notoriously fickle weather at Bridgewater's Jopson Field, set among mountains near Harrisonburg, Va., had gone from windy enough to blow over a tent in the first quarter, to overcast with driving rain at halftime, to no wind for much of the fourth quarter. But the gust that changed the game came at the right time for the Eagle faithful.
"In this business," said Clark, "I've been in it long enough and I've lost enough to know that you say 'thank you' when you win."
"We didn't lose because of the field goal," said Rich Manello, the dejected King's coach, afterward. "Let's get that straight. You can't let it come down to that."
Jackson had given the Monarchs a 7-0 lead less than four minutes in, following a 42-yard completion from David Hessler to Chris Ripoli.
The Eagles' offensive struggles began early, but they tied the game on Jamie Langley's 7-yard TD run. Steward White blocked a King's punt near midfield that Adrian Herndon scooped up and rumbled with to the 7-yard line.
King's came right back and scored three minutes later on a 22-yard run by Jackson. With 4:16 to play in the opening quarter, the Monarchs led 14-7.
The Eagles' second touchdown came after a roughing-the-punter call against King's extended the following drive. Jenkins connected with Brian Ratliff on a 54-yard scoring strike, but the Eagles missed the point after.
A 15-yard King's punt gave Bridgewater good field position, and the Eagles went up 19-14 on a 36-yard scoring strike from Jenkins to Andre Jones that was either a hot read or blown coverage.
The Eagles missed the two-point conversion, and two spectacular defenses assumed control of what looked like it would be a shootout.
The Monarchs kept the Eagles from getting to the perimeter, stifling the Eagles' option attack and funneling everything towards their excellent tackles and linebackers. King's was content to run the ball, not being able to pass against Bridgewater's speedy defenders.
The Monarchs added a 28-yard VonTanhausen field goal in the third period, when they were going with the wind.
The two teams had nothing but praise for each other afterward, with several people from Bridgewater saying that the King's defense was the best he'd seen in Division III, better than even Mount Union's in last year's Stagg Bowl.
The Eagles came in scoring 41 points per game and rolling up 464 yards, including 243 rushing. King's outgained the Eagles 376-210. Punter Chad Coffey, who gained 18 yards on a fake, was the Eagles' leading rusher. They finished with just 18 yards rushing.
"We had a defense to make a run all the way," said Manello. "That group could have made a run back into Virginia, back here. That's the hard part."
Jackson, just a sophomore, gained his 259 yards on 45 carries.
"I give all the credit to my offensive line," he said. "Every time I touched the ball, I felt I was going to break one."
Clark, who called King's as physical a team as he's seen in his eight years in Divison III, said his team wouldn't over-analyze the win.
"After you've won for a while, you kind of find a way to win," he said.
And sometimes the wind helps find it for you.