ASHLAND — After his football team defeated perennial power Grand Valley State on a last-second field goal last week, Ashland University head coach Lee Owens was worried that Saturday’s Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game against Saginaw Valley State might be a trap game.
His concerns were validated in the first half when his Eagles fell behind by 10 points, but a spirited halftime led to a much different AU team in the second half as the defense dominated and the offense found its groove to give 10th-ranked Ashland a 31-19 win at Jack Miller Stadium/Martinelli Field.
“From the very beginning of the week I was concerned,” Owens said. “It’s hard coming off a big win, going toward the end of the year, and to not stay focused. We didn’t have as much energy as we normally do. Thank goodness we were at home. Thank goodness we have some warriors in our senior class.”
The victory in the regular-season finale clinched the Eagles, 10-1 overall and 9-0 in the GLIAC, their first outright conference title since 2012 and their third league title in the last six years. It also virtually guaranteed them a home playoff game next Saturday against a team to be determined. AU will find out where and who it will play Sunday night at 5 p.m. when the NCAA Division II football postseason selection show airs on NCAA.com.
Ashland took a 3-0 lead with 1:26 left in the first quarter when kicker Aidan Simenc booted a 38-yard field goal.
On Saginaw’s ensuing possession, it marched 75 yards for a touchdown, with the drive capped by quarterback Ryan Conklin rushing in from 4 yards after faking a handoff and keeping it himself off the left side of the defense. Conklin set up his score by hitting Chad Gailliard (6 catches, 161 yards) for 52 yards on a fade pass down the left sideline.
AU went three-and-out on its next possession, and the Cardinals (5-6, 3-6) wasted no time striking again. Conklin hit Gailliard on a hitch, and when he went to turn upfield, the Eagle defender whiffed on the tackle, allowing him to race 73 yards for a touchdown. After Drew Franklin’s extra point was no good, Saginaw had itself a 13-3 lead with 12:31 left until halftime.
The score would remain that way until AU fullback Mack Mikulski plunged in from 1 yard out. Simenc’s extra point pulled Ashland to within three points at 13-10 with 26 seconds left in the half. Mikulski’s plunge was set up by a 48-yard strike down the right sideline from Tarnowski to Matthew Wilcox.
The momentum from the late first-half touchdown carried over into the second half, as Ashland looked like a completely different team both offensively and defensively.
On its first possession of the second half, AU went straight down the field and scored. The 6-play, 65-yard drive was finished by Tarnowski hitting Logan Bolin (9 catches, 94 yards) for an 8-yard touchdown. The senior signalcaller went on to throw two more scoring strikes in the fourth quarter — one each to Stanley Jackson Jr. (15 yards) and Mikulski (4) — to put the game on ice. He finished the game completing 19 of 37 passes for 256 yards and three scores.
“We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole early,” Tarnowski said. “I don’t think we ever lost faith in each other or had any sense of panic. We knew it was going to be a long football game. … We came out a little flat, but we recovered. We didn’t really change much at halftime. We just needed to execute better.”
Saginaw would score one final time with 1:07 left in the game when Conklin hit Josh Schelke for a 4-yard touchdown.
Ashland turned up the defensive pressure in the second half, with defensive end James Prater Jr., who tied AU’s single-game record with 3 1/2 sacks, leading the way. With the Eagles pinning their ears back in the second half, the Cardinals could only muster 141 yards of total offense on 39 plays in the final 30 minutes of the game. Kevin Bourne led the unit with 11 total tackles, while Nick Powers added nine total stops. Dale Irby had an interception deep in Saginaw territory in the fourth quarter that set up Ashland’s final touchdown.
“We knew that they were having their (receivers) stop at the sticks and trying to get the ball there,” Prater Jr. said. “We knew that we had to get more pressure defensive line-wise. That’s what we did.”
With starting running back Andrew Vaughn out because of an injury, Ashland’s offense struggled to gain traction on the ground throughout much of the game. The Eagles finished with 151 yards rushing on 33 carries, with tailback Keishaun Sims leading the way with 66 yards on 13 carries. Sims struggled for the majority of the game until he busted a 44-yard run in the fourth quarter. Tarnowski added 59 yards on six totes.
Nate Moore led Saginaw’s rushing attack with 102 yards on 15 carries, while Conklin completed 16 of 37 passes for 241 yards and two scores. Bryan Jones paced the Cardinals defense with 10 total tackles.