Tabor head coach Mike Gardner is no prophet, but he couldn’t have given his team a more fitting mantra in the week leading up to its first ever home playoff game Saturday.
“I talked to my guys all week about how these games come down to 10 plays or less,” he said.
Lo and behold, Tabor found itself in a grinding, defensive battle against Doane with eight turnovers and two blocked field goals. Of those 10 plays, seven went in favor of the Bluejays, who won the game 16-14.
The biggest play wasn’t a turnover but rather a penalty. Ahead 9-7 in the beginning of the fourth quarter, Tabor quarterback Simon McKee threw away a third-and-13 pass in the red zone, and a Tabor player was flagged for holding.
McKee figured the Tigers would decline the penalty, bringing on a field goal. Doane had already blocked a field goal and an extra point. Doane instead accepted the penalty, giving the Bluejays another shot.
“I was like, ‘All right coach, just give me a chance; I can make this throw,’” McKee said.
McKee found senior wide receiver Ryan Arballo open in the middle of the field and lofted a pass that Arballo caught just before going out the back of the end zone for a 28-yard score.
The Bluejays got a commanding 16-7 lead with 10 minutes 50 seconds left, but the game was far from over.
The next minute of game action was chaos, with Doane throwing an interception on its first play from scrimmage, then picking off McKee on Tabor’s very first play, then throwing another interception on its second play after that. In total, there were three interceptions in four plays.
The teams exchanged short, unsuccessful possessions until Doane took the ball with 3:14 remaining. The Tigers entered a hurry-up offense that put the Bluejays off-balance for the first time all game. The seven plays in Doane’s desperation drive were more than it had strung together in any of its previous 14 drives on the day, save for one that ran out the first half.
The Tigers eventually scored on a quarterback sneak to pull within 16-14 with 1:43 left.
Out of timeouts, Doane needed to recover an onside kick to stay alive. Despite a high-bouncing kick that bobbled around a scrum of players, Tabor secured the ball and ran the clock out to advance to the second round.
Doane’s run defense was stifling, as none of Tabor’s 39 rushing attempts exceeded 9 yards. Tabor defensive lineman Dylan Delk from Peabody said Tabor was expecting a defensive battle.
“It’s right what we expected from the start,” Delk said. “We knew it was going to be a defensive battle, and that’s right up our wheelhouse.”
Tabor kept possessions alive, dominating time of possession 42:40 to 17:20.
McKee received offensive player of the game honors with 160 yards on 11-of-22 passing. He threw two interceptions in addition to the touchdown to Arballo. For McKee, getting the win in front of hundreds of home fans was the cherry on top of a critical win.
“Oh my gosh, it was awesome,” he said. “All my family was there, all of our supporters. Getting to play in front of our home crowd, there’s nothing better than that.”
Tabor will head to Sioux City, Iowa, to face Morningside (11-1) on Saturday. Morningside, ranked No. 1 in the country, defeated Doane 55-7 in its final game of the regular season.