EUREKA, Ill. – Eureka College sophomore linebacker Jacob Carls (El Paso, Ill./El Paso-Gridley) intercepted Westminster quarterback Scott Rodgers with 1:08 remaining, one of six Westminster turnovers forced by the Eureka defense, to secure the Red Devils' 22-18 Upper Midwest Athletic Conference victory over the previously unbeaten Blue Jays in front a capacity Homecoming crowd, Saturday afternoon at McKinzie Field. The victory moves the Red Devils to 3-1 overall, their best start since 1995.
After the first career sack by Eureka (3-1, 3-0 UMAC) sophomore linebacker Frankie Bray (Ottawa, Ill./Barron-Collier H.S.) forced the Blue Jays into a 3rd-and-20 situation at their own 25-yard line with 1:15 remaining, Eureka junior defensive end Dan Bolsen (Lovington, Ill./Lovington H.S.) deflected Rodgers's pass across the middle high into the air, allowing Carls to swoop in and collect his third career interception as he fell to the ground. The Eureka offense took a knee twice following the turnover to secure the Red Devils' third consecutive victory.
While it was the Eureka defense that made most of the big plays on Saturday, the Red Devils' offense put together the game-winning scoring drive late in the fourth quarter. Trailing 18-14, Eureka junior quarterback Sam Durley (Roanoke, Ill./Roanoke-Benson H.S.) completed four passes on the possession, including a 38-yard touchdown lob to senior wideout Wes Schmidgall (Eureka, Ill./Eureka H.S./Culver-Stockton H.S.) down the Eureka sideline to give the Red Devils a 20-18 lead with 3:14 left in regulation. After an offsides penalty negated a blocked extra point return for two points by the Blue Jays, Durley found junior receiver Matt Dawson (Goodfield, Ill./Eureka H.S.) in the end zone for the successful 2-point conversion.
The Red Devils took a 7-0 lead on their first possession of the afternoon, driving 72 yards over nine plays. The big blow of the drive came on the first career reception for sophomore Cody Followell (Forrest, Ill./Prairie Central), a 52-yard catch-and-run that moved the Red Devils to Westminster's 30-yard line. Eight plays later Durley connected with Schmidgall for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 11:15 left in the first quarter.
Westminster (4-1, 3-1 UMAC) answered quickly, covering 60 yards on four plays for its first touchdown of the day. Rodgers hit Robert Williams with a 46-yard completion to get deep in Eureka territory before Zain Gower finished the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run with 9:49 left. Ross Richardson's extra point sailed wide to the left, leaving Eureka in front, 7-6.
With the 7-6 lead, the Eureka defense cranked up the intensity and forced turnovers on Westminster's next four possessions. A pass behind the line of scrimmage from Rodgers hit the turf and was scooped by Bray, who returned the miscue 19 yards to end Westminster's second series of the day. Rodgers threw his first of four interceptions early in the second quarter when junior strong safety Murad Abbed (Danville, Ill./Bismarck-Henning H.S.) stepped in front of an errant throw for his first career pick , ending Westminster's drive inside the Eureka red zone.
Abbed's interception set up Eureka's second scoring drive of the afternoon, a 14-play, 90-yard series that pushed the Red Devils in front, 14-6. Durley completed six tosses on the drive and the Red Devils' converted on third down three times, including Durley's 11-yard touchdown throw to Dawson with 7:49 left before halftime.
The visitors looked poised to score again on their final drive of the first half. The Blue Jays controlled possession for more than seven minutes and appeared to convert on 3rd-and-6 when Rodgers carried the ball for 10 yards to Eureka's 1-yard line, but a holding call against Westminster pushed the Blue Jays back to the 22-yard line. On the ensuing play, Rodgers hooked up with Williams on a completion back down to the 1-yard line, but Eureka defenders Steve Snider (Orangeville, Ill./Orangeville H.S.) and Matt Stevenson (Minonk, Ill./Fieldcrest H.S.) jarred the ball loose along the goal line, allowing Snider to fall on the loose ball in the end zone for a touchback and ending Westminster's 17-play drive with its third turnover of the half. Eureka carried a 14-6 lead into intermission.
The second half started with more of the same for the Eureka defense. The Blue Jays took their first possession deep into Eureka territory, earning 1st-and-goal at the 3-yard line after Rodgers broke free for a 10-yard run. Rodgers went on to fumble the snap on the next two plays, setting up 3rd-and-goal at the 5-yard line. On the ensuing play, Abbed stepped in front of Rodgers's throw in the end zone for his second interception of the day, ending a Westminster drive with a turnover for the fourth consecutive time.
Following a Eureka punt, the Blue Jays were able to temporarily put an end to their turnover issues with a 9-play, 80-yard scoring drive capped by a 13-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Mac Findeiss. The 2-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful, leaving Eureka in front, 14-12, with 1:24 left in the third quarter.
The Red Devils drove inside the Westminster red zone on their next trip. After three plays inside the 5-yard line proved unsuccessful, a 21-yard field goal try from junior kicker Travis Huber (Morton, Ill./Morton H.S.) was blocked, allowing Westminster's Shane Harris to collect the loose ball and race 92 yards down the sideline for a touchdown with 8:41 left in the game. Rodgers's 2-point pass was no good, leaving the Blue Jays with an 18-14 advantage, their first of the game.
The Red Devils answered with their game-winning scoring drive. Facing the 22-18 deficit, the Blue Jays had two possessions in the final 5:22 of the game to rally for the victory. Their first opportunity ended when senior free safety Mike Minehan (Washington, Ill./Washington H.S./McKendree) picked off Rodgers, a diving, one-handed grab across the middle at Eureka's 48-yard line with 4:14 remaining. Eureka went three-and-out on the ensuing drive, setting up the heroics from Bray, Bolsen and Carls on Westminster's final possession.
Westminster, who entered Saturday's contest with a Division III-best plus-18 turnover margin, finished Saturday at a minus-6. The Red Devils picked off Rodgers four times and fell on a pair of Blue Jay fumbles. On the other side of the field, Eureka did not commit a turnover for the second time in its last three outings. In two games at McKinzie Field, the Red Devils own a plus-8 turnover margin.
Durley turned in another big day through the air to lead the Eureka offense, finishing 22-for-36 for 290 yards and three scores. Dawson shared game-high honors with seven receptions, while senior tight end Alex Hess (Washington, Ill./Washington H.S.) caught six balls for a career-high 90 yards. Schmidgall made six catches for a game-high 96 yards. Sophomore running back Corey Dawson (Farmington, Ill./Farmington H.S.) carried a career-high 24 times for 76 yards.
Defensively, senior cornerback Rosney Beverly (Los Angeles, Calif./Normal West H.S.) and the Eureka secondary held UMAC receiving leader Carl Givens (116.8 YPG) to just one catch for seven yards. Minehan made 10 stops, including a game-high six solo tackles.
Rodgers, who entered the game ranked third nationally in passing efficiency, went 18-for-27 for 262 yards. He also ran the ball 14 times for 26 yards. Zain Gower led all rushers with 100 yards on 21 carries. Justin Grahl shared game-high honors with Matt Dawson with seven receptions for 71 yards to lead the Westminster receiving corps.
With St. Scholastica's 49-6 victory over MacMurray on Saturday, the Red Devils and Saints share first place in the UMAC as the last two unbeaten teames with identical 3-0 UMAC records.
Eureka will hit the road next weekend when it makes its first of three trips to the state of Minnesota for a 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Martin Luther in New Ulm, Minn.
NOTES: Eureka is 3-1 overall for the first time since 1995 ... The Red Devils are 3-0 in UMAC play for the first time ever and 3-0 in conference action for the first time since starting the Illini-Badger Football Conference schedule 3-0 in 1995 ... Eureka has won four in a row at home for the first time since 1997 ... Westminster did not punt on Saturday. All of nine of its possessions ended in a touchdown or turnover ... Alex Anderson (Henry, Ill./Henry-Senachwine H.S.) and Ty Amos (Peoria, Ill./Central H.S.) made their first career starts on Eureka's offensive line.