A year ago, the University of San Diego football team made headlines with a win for the ages.
USD’s upset victory over Cal Poly in the first round of the 2016 Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs was the first playoff victory by a non-scholarship program over a scholarship school in postseason history. While the Toreros would go on to lose in the next round to heavily-favored North Dakota State, the win put the country on notice and validated a dominant season in America’s Finest City.
The Toreros returned to the postseason this year after sweeping the Pioneer League, running up an undefeated conference mark with a 371-97 scoring margin.
The team spent nearly all of the fall racking up recognition. Senior defensive end Jonathan Petersen led the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss, becoming the school’s all-time leader in both statistics. Quarterback Anthony Lawrence threw for 30 touchdowns against just 2 interceptions, garnering recognition as a Walter Payton Award finalist (the FCS’s version of the Heisman Trophy). Even head coach Dale Lindsay got in on the act, becoming the winningest head coach in program history.
Despite those impressive accomplishments though, questions remained about the Toreros’ ability to compete with athletes from scholarship schools. Consider the team’s authoritative 41-10 triumph Saturday night, then, a resounding proclamation: the Toreros can do more than just keep games close.
Facing a Northern Arizona Lumberjacks team led by pro-caliber quarterback Case Cookus, USD flexed its defensive muscle early, wreaking havoc in the backfield and swarming to the ball to limit NAU to a truly pathetic minus-29 yards of offense through the first quarter. Combined with an Odell-esque catch from senior wide receiver Justin Priest and a broken-coverage touchdown toss to redshirt senior tight end Ross Dwelley, the Toreros had an early 17-0 lead and seemed to be in business.
ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?
— HERO Sports FCS (@HEROSportsFCS) November 26, 2017
The Lumberjacks offense would briefly awaken in the second quarter, using Cookus’ arm and legs to move back down the field and cross the goal line to bring the game to within 10.
That was as close as it would get though, as the Toreros refused to remove their foot from the gas. A high-effort strip sack by Kevin Glajchen was followed by a cut-riddled run from freshman running back Emilio Martinez to stretch the lead to 24-10 by halftime.
Even by then, all that was left was to close things out for good. A red zone fumble recovery by Petersen and a long toss to Dwelley for his second score of the night did just that, and the Toreros rolled to the emphatic victory.
Dwelley with the EXCLAMATION POINT for the Toreros
— FCS Football (@NCAA_FCS) November 26, 2017
It was as well-rounded as a win can come.
USD’s offense, second in the FCS in points at 39 per game, rolled to 439 total yards and held the ball for just over 38 minutes of game time.
That success allowed USD defenders opportunities for rest between drives, counteracting any elevation effects from the game’s 7,000-foot high Flagstaff, Arizona venue. As fundamentally sound as any, the Toreros’ defense took advantage, controlling the line of scrimmage throughout the contest to limit the highly-touted Cookus to just 178 yards passing and force three turnovers.
With the win, the Toreros advance to the second round of the FCS playoffs and a matchup with the same North Dakota State squad that ended their season last year. Winners of five of the last six national championships, the 10-1 Bison are strong again this year, ranking in the top three nationally in both scoring offense and defense.
As a result, it is likely that the same questions will continue to surround USD as they travel to the Great Plains next Saturday to take on one of college football’s most established dynasties. Tonight, though, shows what can happen when the Toreros are doubted. No longer just a non-scholarship school invited to the big dance, USD is beginning to develop a reputation as a legitimate contender, ready to ruin the party for the postseason regulars of the FCS.
Noah is a current undergraduate at the University of San Diego. In addition to his classes as a Business Economics student, Noah serves as the scouting director for the nationally-ranked USD baseball team and as an NFL correspondent with The Mighty 1090. You can follow him on Twitter @thebackseatlamp