SEWARD, Neb. - Bulldog stadium erupted with jubilation as Northwestern's Mike O'Brien missed wide right from 25 yards out on a field goal attempt in the final minute, preserving a 17-16 Bulldog upset of No. 11 Northwestern on Saturday. Behind a lockdown defensive effort in the second half, Concordia extended its win streak to four games and produced the biggest shocker in GPAC football action this season.
"It's big," junior cornerback Derek Blessing said. "We've been working on this for the last three years - even more than that. We put in our hard work and it just comes down to this. We played our hearts out."
Concordia (4-3, 3-2 GPAC) held the Red Raiders to 86 yards of offense in the second half, but still trailed nearly the entire game until senior kicker Kenny Zoeller's 24-yard field goal gave the Bulldogs their first lead at 17-16 with 2:43 remaining in the game. Zoeller's 12th field goal make of the season, which turned out to be the game winner, capped an 11-play, 41-yard drive.
Northwestern (5-2, 3-2 GPAC) took over at its own 20-yard line after Zoeller booted a touchback. With all three timeouts remaining, the Red Raiders inserted junior starting quarterback Davis Bloemendaal back into the game after he had missed most of the second half due to an injury suffered late in the first half.
Bloemendaal completed 6 of 7 passes for 69 yards on the final drive in marching Northwestern to the Concordia eight-yard line with :43 left to set up a potential game-winning field goal by O'Brien. But a struggling kicking game that missed an extra point in the first quarter failed once again, sending the Bulldog sideline into a frenzy of excitement.
"Our guys have shown a ton of perseverance and kept working. We could have folded after the 0-3 start," Concordia head coach Vance Winter said. "We could have went into woe-is-me mode. Our guys have continued to fight. I'm just so proud of the effort and the work. Today's game was like our whole season, except we finished the deal today."
Blessing may have turned in the biggest play of Saturday's game. The Ogallala, Neb., native, the NAIA's best punt returner with an average of 26.1 yards per return entering the contest, made up for an offense that struggled to score against the stout Red Raider defense. With Concordia down 16-7 midway through the fourth quarter, Blessing caught Nathayn DeHoyos' punt at the 50 and raced to the end zone for his third punt return touchdown of the season.
"We switched it up," Blessing said. "Coach said let's go middle return, so I caught the ball and looked straight up the middle. Our guys just made a big hole for me. I saw the hole, saw two guys down field and I saw one or two of our guys down field. They blocked it perfect. It's theirs, not mine."
Like it did throughout the second half, the defense responded on Northwestern's ensuing possession and forced a three-and-out. DeHoyos' 35-yard punt, followed by a six-yard Blessing return to the Northwestern 49-yard line, set the stage for the final score of the game.
The key play of the next possession came on a Bulldog third-and-six from the Northwestern 34 when quarterback Von Thomas used his exceptional mobility and elusiveness to extend the drive. With a defender grasping both arms around Thomas near midfield, the 6-foot-2 signal caller somehow slipped away and found running back Aaron Gillory for a gain of 12 and a first down. Thomas ran for 10 yards on the next play to position Zoeller for a chip-shot field goal.
"It wasn't pretty at all," Thomas said. "I just trusted my guys and trusted my ability to keep the chains moving and make big plays. It's all about confidence."
Thomas showed plenty of it on Saturday, as he shook off a critical lost fumble in the red zone late in the first half and an interception to make enough plays to help Concordia snap a nine-game losing streak to Northwestern. Thomas led running back Victor Brown perfectly on a 59-yard touchdown pass on a streak route straight down the seam that got the Bulldogs on the board and cut their deficit to 9-7 with 5:55 left in the second quarter.
The Red Raiders answered with 1:27 left in the half when Bloemendaal found junior receiver Brice Byker for a 28-yard touchdown pass to seemingly put Northwestern in control. The Red Raiders took a 16-7 lead into the locker room thanks in part to a 249-172 edge in total yards. However, Northwestern would go scoreless over the final 30 minutes.
Thomas, a Miami, Fla., native finished 16 of 29 passing for 218 yards and a touchdown pass. Senior receiver Colten Quinabo caught six of those passes for 48 yards, while Aaron Gillory led Concordia with 60 rushing yards on 19 carries.
Defensively, the Bulldogs were paced by the 11 stops made by linebacker Kyle Little. Freshman safety Tait Sibbel checked in with eight total tackles, including a key stuff of quarterback Braden Miltenberger on a fourth-and-two with the Red Raiders driving late in the first half.
Bloemendaal led the Northwestern offensive attack with 150 yards passing and one touchdown and another 75 yards on the ground. The prolific rushing duo of Brandon Smith and Theo Bartman was held to 110 yards on 28 carries, roughly 100 yards below their combined season average.
The win feels great for Thomas, who believes even better things are on the horizon.
"We still haven't reached our peak yet," Thomas said. "We're still working. We're excited to get this big win against the No. 11 team in the nation, but we're going to keep working and keep progressing."
While Concordia players may have talked about having room for further improvement, Saturday's victory was a sweet reward for a team that lost its first three games all by eight points or less against quality competition.
However, Winter is already looking ahead to next Saturday's 1 p.m. game at rival Nebraska Wesleyan (2-4, 1-4 GPAC).
"It's a win, it's just a win," Winter said of the upset of Northwestern. "We can't think of it as anything more. We have to go out and play good football week in and week out. We've got another tough test next week against Nebraska Wesleyan."