COLLEGEVILLE, Pa. – Samuel Ragland broke tackles. The defense bent but refused to break. And when the dust settled on a back-and-forth rollercoaster with Juniata, the Ursinus College football team was still perfect.
Ragland scored on two electrifying fourth-quarter runs to give the Bears the lead, freshman Danny Freeman preserved it with an interception near the goal line in the final minute, and the defense forced five turnovers to overcome a huge offensive day for Juniata in a 35-28 Centennial Conference thriller on Homecoming. With the victory, Ursinus (3-0, 2-0) moved to 3-0 for the first time since 2014 and knocked off the Eagles for the first time in five years.
Ragland finished with 85 yards and the two scores on ten carries and was named the recipient of the Kenneth E. Walker Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player who displayed great sportsmanship and athletic ability in the Homecoming game. The trophy has been handed out to student-athletes since the 1957 season in honor of the former Bear football player.
The freshman back's cutting brilliance – combined with some timely turnovers by the defense – allowed the Bears to escape with a win in a game peripherally controlled by Juniata.
After Eagles quarterback Austin Montgomery was wide left on a 25-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, Ursinus embarked on an 8-play, 80-yard march to go ahead for good. Sophomore quarterback Thomas Garlick converted a 4th-and-2 from the Eagles' 22 with a read-option keeper, and Ragland followed with a remarkable dash down the left sideline for the go-ahead 18-yard score. Garlick's two-point conversion run was successful, giving Ursinus a 28-21 edge with 11:30 to play.
Juniata coughed up a fumble on its next drive, and sophomore Noah Thomas was there to pounce on it at the opposing 43-yard line. After two runs by sophomore Stacey Gardner, Ragland took it to the house from 27 yards out on a similarly jaw-dropping display to make it 35-21 with 9:56 to go.
The Bears still had to sweat this one out. The Eagles closed within 35-28 at the 7:20 mark, and got the ball back with 3:26 on the clock. Montgomery drove Juniata all the way down to the 10-yard line in the final minute before the Ursinus defense stiffened. The Eagles' signal-caller misfired on a third-down toss before Freeman stepped in front of Montgomery's intended receiver at the 5-yard line, sealing one of Ursinus' most dramatic triumphs in recent memory.
Despite surrendering 585 yards of offense, the Bears' defense proved opportunistic to a fault on Saturday. Ursinus forced five Juniata turnovers (three fumbles and two interceptions), and four of them came in Bear territory, including a fumble at the goal-line that could have given Juniata a 21-13 lead in the second quarter. Senior Demarcus Henry and sophomore Jacob McCain each had a forced fumble, with recoveries by sophomores Thomas, Marcus Weathers, and Matthew Trainor. Senior co-captain Heath Hidlay pulled down an interception.
Garlick got Ursinus off to a fast start with a 26-yard touchdown run on the Bears' first drive before Montgomery found Matt Lehr all alone in the flat for a 20-yard score and a 7-6 Juniata lead.
After Garlick had a deep pass intercepted, Henry stripped Montgomery at the Bears' 40 and Trainor was there to fall on the loose ball. Hidlay's interception – the fourth of his career – and a 22-yard return on the Eagles' ensuing possession set up Ursinus for a 4-play, 23-yard drive that culminated in a 3-yard TD plunge by Gardner.
Juniata came right back with a 66-yard strike from Montgomery to A.J. Brocato to put the visitors up 14-13 at the 12:08 mark of the second period.
A mishandled snap derailed a promising Bears march before the Eagles repaid the favor. Justin Helsel took an end-around and was headed for the left pylon before McCain stepped up to dislodge the ball, and Weathers recovered in the end zone for a touchback to keep the deficit at one heading into halftime.
A home-run play gave Ursinus the lead back early in the third quarter, as junior Asa Manley took an option pitch from Garlick, hit the hole, and stormed all the way to paydirt for a 64-yard score and his first rushing touchdown since 2015. Calvin Bembry's 9-yard rushing score flipped the upper hand back to the visitors' sideline with 6:22 left in the third before Montgomery's missed chip shot set off a wild final frame.
Montgomery finished 23-for-39 for 343 yards and two touchdowns, with Helsel grabbing eight balls for 117 yards. Lehr rushed 17 times for 110 yards, and Bembry gained 86 yards on eight totes.
Ragland (10 carries, 85 yards), Manley (4-72), and Gardner (18-56) proved a potent three-headed monster on the ground for Ursinus, which racked up at least 250 rushing yards (252) for the third straight game to open the season. All five of the Bears' touchdowns came on the ground.
Garlick was 12-of-18 for 148 yards and an interception on the day, with junior Jacob Clifford (2 catches, 50 yards) as his top target.
McCain, who came in second in the CC in tackling, had eight stops to lead a balanced defensive effort for the Bears. Hidlay finished with seven, and seniors Jamie Casseus and Henry tallied five each.
The football team looks to stay unbeaten next Saturday at Moravian.