Football is a game of speed. If someone looks away for even a split second you might miss something, even a game-changing moment.
In Knox’s 35-33 victory over Beloit Saturday, such a moment occurred in the waning minutes of the game. As senior running back Derek Mortensen broke through the defensive line with under a minute to play, the game was seemingly over. But after a spin move left, Mortensen positioned right at the helmet of a Buccaneer defender, the ball popped out and floated in midair.
“It happened so fast,” head coach Chad Eisele said. “I saw the ball pop out, but then I saw [Mortensen] on the ground clearly with the ball. I really didn’t have the time to react.”
In the dogpile that ensued, Mortensen, who is known for his sure hands, reclaimed possession ,and Knox was able to take a knee to seal their first win in nearly two years.
“We have had opportunities [in the past] to do what we need to do, to make that one play that needs to be made … it’s nice to close it out,” Eisele said.
Knox’s final drive lasted nine plays and finished off the last 4:38 on the clock. Freshman Luke Oosterbaan, who was already having a career day with three touchdown passes, was the key to the victory, according to Eisele.
“We knew Luke was the kind of kid who could put us in good situations,” Eisele said. “Going nine for 14 with the three touchdowns is great, but the [23 yard run on second and 15] he had at the end of the game to seal the deal for us was probably the biggest thing. He checked into the right run play. For a freshman, that shows incredible maturity and understanding of the offense, and that is what I’m most proud of.”
Junior tight end Neal Moon, who caught one of Oosterbaan’s three touchdowns, also noted the pressure of the moment and the solid decision-making of the young quarterback.
“The series before [the final drive], we had gone three and out and when we got the ball back, we realized the offense was under a lot of pressure,” Moon said. “He hadn’t kept the ball on an option all game and when we needed it the most he kept it.”
In addition to making good decisions in the run game, Oosterbaan did not throw an interception, the first game a Knox quarterback has not thrown an interception since week nine of last season against Lake Forest.
But even in victory, the team is not getting overly confident for this week or any of the final four games.
“The biggest thing is to not get ahead of ourselves. We got a great win, but we have all been thinking to just take things day by day,” Moon said.
Lost in the shuffle of the final drive and the efficient Knox offense was the clutch plays the Prairie Fire defense made throughout the game.
Knox was down 10-7 midway through the second quarter before senior Jonas Mack picked off a Beloit pass at the Buccaneer five yard line and returned it for a touchdown.
“The pick six definitely pumped up the whole team, gave us a shot in the arm,” junior defensive lineman Steve Bora said. “We have actually been practicing getting turnovers, working in stations on getting to the ball and getting the ball out.”
Knox also picked off a pass in the redzone but left the biggest play for when they needed it the most.
When Beloit brought the score to 35-33, everyone in the stadium knew a two-point conversion was coming, and with the pressure at a boiling point, the defense forced an incomplete pass to keep Knox ahead.
“Everyone did their job on that last play. The coverage was great, and he ended up having to throw the ball on the hill,” Bora said.
“It was big for our confidence,” senior linebacker Mike Hendrick said. “We have been struggling on [big plays like] third and fourth downs, but now we know we can make that stand and win the game defensively.”
Hendrick collected a game-high 15 tackles, and he leads the Midwest Conference in tackles and tackles per game for the second straight year.
But Hendrick was quick to note that it has not been just him playing well on the defensive side of the ball this season.
“I try to use my play to motivate other people, and this year you can see other people stepping up on defense. I like that,” he said.
Senior defensive back Mike Schroeder and junior linebacker Matt Hendrick are each having career years, averaging eight and 6.5 tackles per game, respectively.
“If I don’t have a very good game, which I think haven’t had a good one yet this year, people are going to be able to step up and make the plays I can’t,” Mike Hendrick said.
Knox’s next contest will be against MWC returnee Cornell College. One of the founding members of the Midwest Conference, Cornell left in 1997 only to return again this season. The contest will be the 75th time the two have met in football.
“This is a long, storied rivalry, and I was really excited when I saw [Cornell] come back into the league,” Eisele said.
“It will be exciting. With a grass field and a team [we have] never played before, we just want to keep the momentum going from last week,” Bora said.