By Matt Zimmer
The Key to the City is staying with the purple.
In a contest that failed to recreate the drama of last year’s inauguaral rivalry game but was at least enjoyable for defense junkies, USF cruised past Augustana 27-10 Saturday night in front of a Bob Young Field crowd of 4,712, the first-ever meeting between the schools on Cougar turf.
Nephi Garcia rushed for 159 yards and three touchdowns, and the Cougar defense made sure that a Viking offense that has been struggling continued to struggle. When the clock hit zero, USF players, after first going through the postgame line to shake hands with their rivals, sprinted towards the north end zone to once again lay their hands on the rivalry prize.
“It’s definitely just as special as it was last year,” said USF senior Carrington Hanna, who caught the game-winning touchdown in last year’s 32-31 double-overtime win at Augustana, but got the start at quarterback this time. “To be able to graduate with two wins against Augustana, and with the Key to the City still in our hands, that’s a great feeling. It’s something no one can take away from us.”
The Augie defense fought admirably to keep the Cougars (5-3) in check, but with USF clinging to a 6-3 lead midway through the third quarter, a long punt return by Wes Smith set up Garcia’s first touchdown run and a fumbled punt by the Vikings deep in their own territory gave USF an easy score late that made it 20-3 and pretty much put the game out of reach.
“It hurts,” said Augie linebacker Ben Skelly, who had 13 tackles to lead all defenders. “It hurts to lose any game but this one’s got a little bit more pain because they’ll be around the city talking it up for a whole year again.”
Augie didn’t go quietly, with Dajon Newell going 19-yards for a score to make it 20-10 with four minutes left, but USF answered with a 9-play, 58-yard drive that ended in Garcia’s third touchdown to erase what little doubt remained.
It was Garcia’s first time partaking in the rivalry, and it lived up to what he’d heard about it.
“It was amazing to be a part of,” said Garcia, who has now surpassed 100 yards in seven straight games and is just 12 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. “It was intense, it was a battle, and I thought it was a great game. Their defense is really good, but I thought our offense did a pretty good job against them.”
Hanna took every snap under center in his second straight start at quarterback and found the Viking defense to be far more stout than the Concordia ‘D’ that he torched for 400 yards and four touchdowns last week. Hanna completed 21-of-37 throws for 199 yards and was intercepted once, but he directed two quick scoring drives early to give the Cougars an advantage they never relinquished. USF went up 3-0 on a 41-yard Bradley Hatfield field goal and made it 6-0 on a 22-yarder, and while the Viking defense stuffed USF impressively for the rest of the half, the Cougar defense was up to the task as well.
John Batinich had eight tackles for the Cougars, while Carter Ahlers had six. Jonathan Talbot had a big sack and two tackles for loss, as USF held the Vikings to 329 yards of offense.
“It was a dogfight clear to the end,” said USF coach Jed Stugart, whose team converted 12-of-25 third downs and 3-of-3 fourth downs. “(The Vikings) weren’t going to go away. Our defense had a tough few weeks but they kept us in this game. Augie’s defense is really good and they stopped a very prolific offense tonight. So credit to our defense for creating the momentum for us and stepping up when we needed it.”
For Augie’s beleaguered offense, there were positives, but not enough of them. Their field goal was set up by a Hanna interception, and their touchdown came when Trey Heid improvised a pitch to Newell on a busted fourth-down play. When the Vikings (3-5) moved the ball and had chances to score, they didn’t do it.
Augie averaged 6.2 yards per rush, with Newell gaining 59 yards on nine carries and CJ Ham running for 50 on seven attempts, and Heid completed 27-of-48 throws but for just 187 yards. Brandon Mohr had 10 tackles and an interception for the Viking defense, while Justin Brown and Nate Kirby each had eight tackles.
“We didn’t score when we had scoring opportunities, and special teams hurt us,” said Augie coach Jerry Olszewski. “It’s ironic because our special teams has been so good for us all season, but we made some mistakes on special teams that really gave them big plays.
“Our defense played well,” Olszewski added. “You look at the yards per play, it was 4.6 for both teams. But we’re really putting a lot on their shoulders right now. We have to score more points.”
By Matt Zimmer