With three minutes to go in the first half of Saturday’s home match-up with Drake, the University of San Diego was in an unfamiliar position: an honest-to-God competitive football game.
Over the past month, blowouts have become commonplace for the Toreros, who spent October outscoring opponents 190-51. The team is well on its way to its fourth Pioneer League title in the last five seasons, and hasn’t been truly tested since an early-season loss on the road at Princeton.
Within that context, the Toreros’ appearing to be ready to close out the first half tied with the opposing Bulldogs, likely their only true competition for that fourth conference crown, came as a surprise to those in attendance.
Head coach Dale Lindsey, however, was wary of the threat Drake posed to USD’s title chances from the start.
“I was just thinking, ‘Hell, we’re going to be in for a dog fight all day. This is a good football team,’” Lindsey said. “We had looked so good the last two weeks, that we were bound to fall off the cliff at some point. We just didn’t play up to the level we’ve been playing. Some of that is us, and some of that’s Drake.”
Leave it to the Toreros, though, to leave no doubt by the end of a given game. USD rode an explosive offense led by standout signal caller Anthony Lawrence to an emphatic 45-15 win at the end of the day.
The victory locked up at least a share of the Pioneer League title for the Toreros, who stand one unsolved tiebreaker away from an outright championship and an automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs. It also extended the Toreros’ home conference winning streak to 30 games, and the team’s overall conference winning streak to 19 games.
Lawrence threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns on the day, backed by several outstanding catches from his receiving corps. The performance continued a run of success for the redshirt junior quarterback that has seen him pile up 25 touchdown passes against just one interception on the season.
Team captain and offensive lineman Miles McArdle spoke highly of the quarterback’s recent play after the game.
“Anthony’s playing amazing this year,” McArdle said. “He’s always been talented and had that accuracy, but I think this year just shows that his decision-making’s even better, especially with that ratio. I mean, he just doesn’t make bad decisions, he’s so locked in.”
Lindsey echoed those sentiments, acknowledging the underrated athleticism of the signal caller.
“To me, this is just what he does every year,” Lindsey said. “The guy just knows how to play quarterback. He can make some plays, and actually scrambles a little better than people give him credit for.”
Lawrence did not provide the only impressive individual performance of the day, however. Wide receiver Justin Priest and tight end Ross Dwelley combined for 186 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air, while first-year running back Emilio Martinez continued his strong season with 154 total yards and a touchdown on the day.
Perhaps the highlight of the game, though, came on a second-quarter play with the Toreros’ offense still on the sidelines. Senior defensive end Jonathan Petersen, who entered the day just one-half of a sack away from the school’s career mark, burst around the outside and brought down the Bulldogs’ quarterback to grab the record.
Petersen noted after the game that while the memories were fresh following the record-breaking play, the excitement over the historic mark was short-lived.
“After the past couple weeks where I was held without [a sack], it was just good to get back there,” Petersen said. “I wasn’t really thinking about it being a record-breaker or anything. Plus, any elation I had was short-lived, because I screwed up on the punt return afterwards. I got to the sideline and all the guys were really happy for me, but all the coaches weren’t really that pleased.”
Petersen would go on to add two more sacks to his name, extending the record and breaking out after a couple of quiet weeks on the defensive side of the ball.
“It was a little bit like there was just a road block” Petersen said. “I had had at least a half-sack in every game up until Jacksonville, so these last two weeks without a sack, everybody was ribbing me, saying ‘Oh, maybe you won’t even break it.’ I didn’t let it get to me, but I definitely thought about it a little bit, so it’s just kind of nice that I won’t have to deal with that anymore from the guys.”
McArdle acknowledged that the record serves as the culmination of a standout college career for the senior.
“He’s been a beast since I’ve been here,” McArdle said. “I feel like the only reason he doesn’t get three sacks every game is because of the approach of the offense. I feel like with his motor and his skill set, if you’re dropping back and passing the ball, he’s going to get you, and there’s no way around it.”
Ultimately, then, despite the slow start, the Toreros managed to demonstrate once again that they are the class of the Pioneer League. As well-rounded a team as any, and with just two games left on the schedule, the team appears all but a lock for yet another conference crown and the automatic postseason bid that accompanies it. Perhaps, then, it was good for the team to get a little bit of a test ahead of the playoff match-ups that seem all too likely to be on their calendar soon.
The Toreros now look ahead to a road match-up with Davidson next Saturday before closing out the season at home against Marist on Nov. 18.
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