USM wins second straight with improved second-half play

When two teams treat gaining momentum like it's catching Ebola, it can make for a most interesting day of football.

Ask University of Saint Mary football coach Jay Osborne though and he believes momentum is only as good as the next play.

With that in mind, the USM Spires overcame a handful of big opportunities to put away the Bethel Threshers on a sun-soaked, cool, Homecoming day at Charles J. Berkel Memorial Stadium, and got the only momentum that really matters:

The one that wins a close game.

For the second straight week, the Spires made the big plays in the second half to complete a rally from an early deficit and USM moved to 4-2 overall and 3-1 in Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) action with a 17-10 win over Bethel.

“It’s hard against a team like this where they try to grind the football,” Osborne said. “There was only one turnover by them so when you play a team like that and you talk about momentum…they are trying to do what we are trying to do. We are two teams that are very similar.

“We did what we needed to do today.”

Saint Mary was led by quarterback Drew Cortez (13-for-25, 88 yards, one touchdown, one interception), running back Easton Ridley (22 carries, 73 yards, one touchdown rushing, one receiving score), KyRandall Smith (21 tackles) and Jared Paulakovich (eight tackles).

The win means that USM has bettered last year’s victory total (3) with five more games left to play, but that wasn’t even on Osborne’s radar.

“It doesn’t mean anything…our goal is seven (wins),” Osborne said. “The best team in school history won six games in 2005 and in 2012 we started 0-4 and finished 6-5. Our barometer is to be better than them.

“We’re building in there. We’ve played with Concordia (Neb.) and Tabor (two losses against ranked teams), we’re playing with these teams and if we can believe we can do it (regularly) something is going to break loose for us. We have to do it against the Concordias and Tabors, but we proved we can play with them. They believe and they come in to work. As a whole they believe it’s going to happen.”

Bethel pounded away to its left, the Spires's right side of the line and did so to the tune of 10 first quarter points, while USM had one Aiden Pirrin field goal sandwiched in between as the Threshers led 10-3 after 15 minutes.

Bethel running back Jaylen Sykes gashed the USM defense for 104 yards in that first quarter.

“What they were seeing is that they had a 220-pound running back from a junior college out of California that was a bowling bowl and ran a 4.5 (40-yard dash),” Osborne said. “(Sykes) was really good. Their offensive stats were statistically different from the first half to the second half. They tried to ride (him) in the first half and we made adjustments. We made adjustments and we got stronger hitting him rather than the opposite. If you look at his carries in the first half, he was running through three or four tackles and in the second half we slowed him down. You can’t take 30 carries running the way he was running.”

Saint Mary tied the game at the 12:09 mark of the second quarter when a screen pass to Easton Ridley three yards behind the line of scrimmage turned into a 26-yard to the endzone and a 10-all tie.

That ledger held until halftime as the team's went in to the break even on the scoreboard with only Bethel holding a 176-155 total yard edge.

Both teams buckled down defensively after the half, combining for a total of 47 yards in the third quarter as the game remained tied, despite most of the 15 minutes were spent on the Bethel side of the field.

Finally USM got the break they needed.

Early in the fourth quarter, a Bethel punt resembled a best hit at a duck hunt and after a two-yard net, the Threshers were assessed a personal foul, putting the Spires at their guest's 14-yard line.

Alas, USM fumbled on the very first play and the momentum was flushed as badly as the previous Bethel punt.

“I am not a big momentum guy and I don’t believe in it and I believe it affects the opponent if it does,” Osborne said. “I am a building a program where it shouldn’t affect them. I look into their eyes and they are just playing football. The play before has no effect on the next play.

“I knew if we kept pinning it down there…eventually it came. That’s what I knew.”

Bethel could do nothing with its newfound reprieve and a punt three plays later gave USM choice field position (again) at the Thresher 31-yard line.

Four plays later, Ridley darted in from 15 yards out for the scoring run that would give the Spires their first lead at 17-10, with 8:01 left in the game.

One key to the Spires' lead was an inspired USM defense that began to keep Sykes in check after a 153-yard first half and Bethel's inability to move the ball all year long made itself evident.

Forced to rally, the Bethel offense continued to run into an inspired USM defense that had complete control of the Thresher offense and ultimately turned them over on downs to secure the Spires’ win.

Sykes finished with 226 yards on 37 carries, but his level of impact on the game diluted as the game wore on.

“We were playing our game…we go with our game plan and see if it works or not and we just make adjustments to it,” Spire defensive back Kenny Nez said. “They have a great running back. He’s a scat back and we figured it out eventually so it worked out for us.”

Overall Bethel finished with a 244-207 edge in total yardage.

The Saint Mary defense may have had its most comprehensive half of football over those last 30 minutes.

“I believe it was (their best half of the season),” Nez said. “We shut them out for that half and a lot of players are playing and we are keeping everyone healthy. That’s what is helping us the most, that we actually have numbers finally. We are all fresh.”