FINDLAY, Ohio - When the Saginaw Valley State University Cardinals and the University of Findlay Oilers met in mid-September last year, the schools provided a must-see thriller that went down to the wire. The outcome of the contest wasn't decided until a 54 yard field goal attempt by SVSU kicker Scott Stanford (Novi, Mich./Novi HS) fell just short as time expired.
The Oilers escaped that contest with a 29-27 victory at Wickes Stadium; a game that ended up hindering SVSU's chance at making the NCAA Division II Playoffs.
The encore matchup in 2013, Donnell Stadium in Findlay, Ohio the site of this year's contest, certainly did not disappoint fans either. The back-and-forth game that featured 982 yards of total offense, 10 touchdowns, three turnovers and a pair of blocked kicks wasn't decided until inside of the final minute in the fourth quarter. That's when senior defensive back Jon Bryant (Detroit, Mich./Oak Park HS) jarred the ball loose just as it reached a Findlay receiver. Junior DB Caleb Higbie (DeWitt, Mich./DeWitt HS) was there to finish-off the turnover for SVSU, snatching the ball high out of the air for his first-career interception and smartly falling to the ground after a short return with 54 seconds left in the game.
Findlay held all three of its timeouts trailing 35-34 at that point, but the Cardinals had a fresh set of downs and were able to kneel three consecutive times to seal the crucial one-point victory.
Saginaw Valley took an early 7-0 lead in the game at the 11:04 mark in the first quarter, as it took the opening drive 77 yards on nine plays to find pay-dirt. The scoring play came when senior Jonathon Jennings (Columbus, Ohio/Westerville South HS) hit fellow senior Jeff Janis (Tawas City, Mich./Tawas Area HS) on a 13 yard touchdown pass.
The Oilers would respond quickly, scoring on a Daiquone Ford 46 yard rush on the third play of the next drive. SVSU blocked the extra point attempt after a bobbled snap to keep a slight advantage at 7-6. The failed PAT attempt would prove costly for the Oilers in the grand scheme of things.
An SVSU fumble on its first play of the next drive gave Findlay great field position at the Cardinal 44 yard line. The Oilers would cash-in on the turnover, going seven plays and using another Ford TD rush to take a 13-7 lead with 3:34 left in the opening quarter.
Findlay would extend its lead to 20-7 after quarterback Verlon Reed hooked-up with Lloyd Henry for a 24 yard touchdown pass with only nine seconds remaining in the first.
Jennings would connect with junior tight end Andrew Dillon (Ypsilanti, Mich./Lincoln HS) four plays into the Cardinals' next drive for a score, cutting the SVSU deficit to 20-14. The play went for 62 yards as Dillon hauled-in his first-career touchdown catch.
Findlay's next drive stalled at the SVSU three yard line when senior linebacker Brian Johnson (Muskegon, Mich./Catholic Central HS) picked-off a Verlon Reed pass in the endzone to keep the Oiler lead at six points.
Jennings then found senior wide receiver Mark Thrash (Wyoming, Mich./Wyoming Park HS) for a 13 yard touchdown to finish a four play, 75 yard scoring drive that was aided by a pair of Findlay personal fouls. That gave SVSU a slim 21-20 advantage following a Stanford extra point.
Findlay's next drive went six plays for 75 yards, using only 1:46 of the clock. The drive was capped-off by Ford's third rushing touchdown of the game, this one a 33 yard rush. That gave the Oilers a 27-21 lead at the 3:41 mark in the first half.
The scoring wasn't over for the half, as Jennings would find Thrash once more for his fourth TD pass of the game, connecting with him on a 27 yard score as the Cardinals were facing a 4th-and-10 from the 27 yard line. The score gave the Cardinals a 28-27 lead.
The score would remain that heading into halftime.
The Oilers took a 34-28 advantage at the 7:20 marker in the third quarter when Ford punched it in from four yards out to score his fourth touchdown of the game. He finished with 180 yards on 33 carries on the afternoon.
A failed fourth-down conversion on the Cardinals' next drive fell a half-yard short as Jennings was tripped-up by an Oiler defender just shy of the first-down marker.
The turnover on downs gave Findlay the ball back with 5:02 left in the third quarter. The Oilers would drive down the field, using 7:34 of clock on 16 plays and 64 yards.
Seth White lined-up a 35 yard field goal attempt for Findlay that potentially could have made the score 37-28 in favor of the Oilers. Senior Jesse Somsel (Rockford, Mich./Rockford HS), having already blocked the earlier extra point, got his hands up and blocked the kick. That assured the Cardinals would be trailing by only six points at the start of their next drive.
That drive would begin at the SVSU seven yard line after the block. Two big scrambles from Jennings of 13 and 17 yards, respectively, would set the Cards up with a first and 10 from the Findlay 40 yard line. On the next play, Jennings hit Thrash up the sideline for a huge 47 yard pass play, setting up another first down from the 13 yard line.
Following a four yard Jennings run, he connected with Thrash for the duo's third touchdown hook-up of the afternoon. Another Stanford PAT gave SVSU a 35-34 advantage with 9:51 left in the game.
When Saginaw Valley got the ball with 7:40 left in the fourth, the Cardinals drove and were facing a fourth and seven from the Findlay 34 yard line. Stanford lined-up and kicked what would have been a 51 yard field goal, as the ball sailed through the uprights with plenty of room to spare.
A false start penalty, however, moved SVSU back five yards and the Cardinals decided to punt.
The Oilers took over with 2:24 left and used three big pass plays to advance the ball to mid-field. After a loss of three yards on a rush, Findlay was facing a second and 13 from its own 47 yardline with just over a minute remaining.
That's when the play of the game occured, as Bryant knocked the ball loose, providing Higbie the opportunity for the game-winning interception.
Thrash earned Meijer "Player of the Game" honors in the contest, as he caught seven balls for a game-high 139 yards and three touchdowns.
Janis hauled-in a team-high eight catches for 124 yards and a score.
Jennings was solid all day for the Cardinals, completing 18-of-25 passes for 343 yards and five touchdowns. The five TD's in a single game ties a school record now shared by Jennings and three others. It was the first time an SVSU quarterback has thrown for five scores since the 2006 season, when Chris Dougherty netted five against Grand Valley.
Senior running back Norman Shuford (Farmington Hills, Mich./Harrison HS) led the ground attack, rushing for 92 yards on 19 attempts. Shuford shouldered most of the rushing duties due to Mark Mays being held out due to injury.
Sophomore linebacker Trevor Blattner (Battle Creek, Mich./Harper Creek HS) led the defensive effort, tallying 12 tackles on the afternoon. Bryant added 11 stops, including a pair of tackles-for-loss. Johnson chipped-in with nine tackles and had the one big interception.
With the victory, Saginaw Valley heads into next week's home contest against Lake Erie College (Sept. 28) with a 2-1 overall record and 2-0 mark in Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) play. Lake Erie (1-2, 1-1 GLIAC) enters the contest coming-off a 35-17 victory over Wayne State. Kickoff is set for 7:00 pm at Wickes Stadium.