As the final 53-48 score indicates, the Chadron State-South Dakota Mines football game Saturday at Elliott Field was another knock-down, drag-out (and extremely entertaining) affair that has become the norm since the rivalry that dates back to 1919--100 years ago this fall--was revived four years ago.
The Eagles have now won each of the four games, but three of them have been by the narrowest of margins. The scores have been 37-33 in 2016, 29-17 in 2017, 50-46 in 2018 and now 53-48.
And, just like last year when Chadron State caused a fumble and recovered the loose ball only a foot or so from the end zone to preserve its victory, this time with only a few ticks remaining on the clock the Eagles successfully defended a fourth down pass at the goal line to secure its victory.
There was elation on the Eagles’ sideline as they took possession of the Eagle-Rock Trophy again, but heartache on the Hardrockers’ sideline after they’d given their all in front of a large crowd on a perfect autumn afternoon.
“We (the Eagles) both struggled and made big plays on all phases of our game today,” said CSC Head Coach Jay Long. “These Hardrockers always give us their best shot. This game could have gone in either direction. I’m proud that we found a way to win. It was quite a battle.”
There was lots of fireworks and drama. The 101 points are the second highest in a Chadron State regular-season game, exceeded only by last year’s 65-62 loss at Adams State. The lead changed hands eight times and the 1,072 combined total net yards are 12th in the Eagles’ history.
Chadron State finished with 573 total net yards, 74 more than the Hardrockers, but Mines possessed the ball 36 minutes, 13 more than the Eagles, and ran 103 plays from scrimmage compared to CSC’s 63.
Both teams had players rack up big numbers. That included the quarterbacks. Chadron State’s Dalton Holst completed 18 of 30 passes for 351 yards and four touchdowns. The Mines’ Toby Smith completed 17 of 45 for 229 yards and six touchdowns, matching Adams State’s Nick Rooney’s half dozen TD passes last year as the most ever thrown against the Eagles.
Naturally, several receivers had busy days. The Eagles’ Tevon Wright caught 10 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 65 receptions for 1,013 yards and 14 TDs this fall and 135 catches for 2,127 yards and 24 scores during his career. Both touchdown totals are school records. (See accompanying story).
Holst’s other touchdown passes went to Cole Thurness covering 33 yards in the second quarter and to Brandon Fullerton good for 54 yards in the fourth period.
Smith’s favorites were a pair of 6-foot-4 targets. Joe Luebbers caught seven passes for 83 yards and touchdowns of four, 17 and 13 yards, all in the first half when the Hardrockers built a 24-17 lead. Carson Hunt grabbed six passes for 103 yards and TDs of five and 22 yards, both in the second half.
Smith’s sixth touchdown pass was a 10-yarder to Anthony Ullrich with 2:30 remaining in the game, cutting the Eagles’ lead to just the final five points.
The game also featured a pair of terrific ball carriers. Chadron State sophomore Elijah Myles carried 28 times for 193 yards and two touchdowns while Hardrockers’ junior Ahmed Lewis rushed 44 times for 179 yards but did not reach the end zone.
Both backs have been on hot streaks. Myles has now gained 717 yards in the last four games and this was Lewis’s sixth consecutive game of more than 100 yards, giving him 1,265 yards for the season, the most in the RMAC.
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Although the Eagles were hanging on by a thread at the end of the game, they came up with some big plays on both sides of the ball in the second half that helped them overcome a 27-17 deficit early in the third quarter.
Less than a minute after marching 75 yards in 10 plays and scoring on Wright’s three-yard pass reception, Eagles’ linebacker Tyler Lewis intercepted Smith’s pass in the flat and took it nine yards to the Hardrockers’ four. Myles scored on the next play to put CSC ahead 31-27.
Mines responded in a hurry when Smith faked a handoff to Lewis, but kept the ball and sprinted 61 yards to the Eagles’ nine. Two plays later, Smith hit Hunt with a five-yard TD.
Chadron State opened its ensuing drive with a 26-yard Holst-to-Wright pass. The same duo gained 19 yards on two passes before Myles broke away for a 23-yard touchdown jaunt that put CSC back on top 38-34.
Mines quickly retaliated when Smith and Hunt hooked up on passes of 27 and 22 yards to regain the lead 41-38. Next up, CSC’s Chad Mikelson, punting for the first time in his college career, boomed a 67-yarder that special teams’ standout Micah Scherbarth downed at the Mines’ one-yard line.
On the ensuing play, several Eagles, led by linebacker Travis Wilson who finished with 20 tackles, tripped up the Mines’ ball carrier in the end zone for a safety.
That forced the Hardrockers to kick off from their 20-yard line. The Eagles’ Stevann Brown returned the ball 23 yards to midfield. On the first play from scrimmage, Holst connected with Fullerton, who was wide open, on their 54-yard touchdown strike.
What may have been the Eagles’ biggest play of the day occurred soon afterwards. The visitors were forced to punt. Alternate tight end Baylor Hayes blocked the punt and Justin Cauley, a substitute running back, grabbed the loose pigskin and took it 15 yards to the end zone, giving the Eagles a 53-41 lead with 11 minutes left to play.
The Hardrockers didn’t give up. After the Eagles lost a fumble at the CSC 31 and Mines managed a first down, Smith’s pass was picked off by all-star cornerback DeAndre Barthwell at the five-yard line for another huge play.
Bolstered by Myles’ 34-yard gallop and a 29-yard pass to Wright, the Eagles attempted a 36-yard field goal, but missed after having succeeded on eight-straight attempts.
Mines responded in a hurry. Smith completed two passes to Hunt for 38 yards and two to Luebbers for 33 yards before connecting with Ullrich on their 10-yard scoring strike to make it 53-48 with 2:30 left to play.
The Hardrockers’ ensuing on-side kick was recovered by Luebbers, giving them a chance to pull the game out of the fire. A pass interference penalty against the Eagles and two completions gave Mines a first down at the CSC 16. One pass was dropped and two more fell incomplete. On fourth down, Smith targeted Hunt, but Barthwell stepped in front of him inside the red zone to stifle the threat.
The Eagles have now won five straight games and are 6-4 for the season and 5-4 in the RMAC. Mines must be the best 2-8 and 1-8 team in the country, or at least have the most moxie.