Brandon Droge, Sports Information Director
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Steven Ford recovered a fumble and returned it 55 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:08 to play on Saturday to help the No. 25 Eagles defeat the No. 22 Ottawa Braves, 25-21 at The Z.
Ford and the defense were up to the task as the Eagles (6-1, 6-1) faced an Ottawa (6-2, 5-2) offense that ranked near the top of the NAIA in nearly every category. The defense held the Braves to just 21 points on Saturday, more than 17 points less than their season average.
Avila trailed the Braves, 21-7 in the third quarter before a pair of Landen Nealy field goals and a touchdown pass from John Jacobs III to Christian Hopkins brought the Eagles to within two at 21-19 midway through the fourth quarter. After the defense forced an Ottawa punt with 6:19 to play, the Avila offense stalled out and had to punt the ball back with just over four minutes left.
The Braves offense was able to pick up a pair of first downs on that drive, moving the ball into Avila territory with under two minutes to play. On 3rd and 5 with 1:29 on the clock, Ottawa’s James Reeder carried the ball towards the left hash, but Avila’s David Crowhurstforced a Reeder fumble, with the ball popping up into the air. The ball came down into the hands of Ford, who turned and sprinted 55 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, flipping into the end zone as he flipped the script on the Braves.
The Eagles would fail on the two point conversion as the score remained 25-21, but the Avila defense forced the Braves into a turnover-on-downs in their final possession, setting up an opportunity for the Eagles to run the victory formation for the final play of the game on Homecoming Weekend at The Z.
Ford was a monster for the Avila defense on Saturday, picking up a team best 10 tackles, including two sacks to go with his fumble recovery that he returned all the way to the end zone on what will go down as biggest play in program history.
“We were talking on the headset, saying we were going to need a miracle to get this win,” Avila head coach Marc Benavidez said after the game. “Then we see the ball come loose and hang in the air, and Steven (Ford) grabs it and takes it all the way home. What a finish. What a game. I don’t know what to say, I’m not going to sleep tonight.”
Ford and the Avila defense held No. 22 Ottawa to just 302 yards of offense on Saturday, limiting the high-powered Braves to just four yards per play in the victory. Avila also finished the game with a season-best six sacks while holding reigning NAIA Player of the Week Conner Kaegi to just 195 yards through the air and -2 yards on the ground.
While Ford will be remembered for the fumble return, the entire defense deserves all the credit for Saturday’s victory. Josh Thomas-Hernandez, David Crowhurst, Nikolas Furlowand Josh West all had multiple tackles for loss as the Eagles found themselves camped in the Ottawa backfield for much of the game. The Eagles also forced the Braves into eight punts, the most for Ottawa since they punted nine times at Kansas Wesleyan in a loss earlier this season.
Offensively, the Eagles struggled for much of the game to get anything going. The Ottawa defense has to be credited for limiting the high-powered Avila offense on Saturday, as the Eagles finished with 324 yards and 25 points, both well below their season averages.
John Jacobs III returned to the lineup after missing the Friends game due to injury, and seemed to have a bit of rust in the early going as he threw two interceptions in the first half and lost a fumble on an option play on Avila’s first drive of the third quarter. Despite his early struggles, Jacobs III rebounded to toss a pair of touchdown passes, and made multiple big plays with his legs to set up a pair of field goals as the Eagles scored the final 18 points of the game to earn their second victory over a ranked opponent this season. Jacobs III finished 15-for-32 for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns and carried the ball 14 times for 58 yards in the victory.
Jacob Carmouche led the way on the ground for the Eagles, carrying the ball 13 times for 91 yards. D’angelo Moore and Raven Josiah also combined for ten carries and 55 yards, with Moore setting a new career high in yards on Saturday as he gashed the Braves on multiple occasions.
Landen Nealy also had a big game for the Eagles, giving the Eagles a pair of big field goals in the third quarter to start the comeback. Nealy split the uprights on a 33-yard field goal with 7:49 to play in the third quarter, and then on Avila’s next drive he nailed a 38-yarder to make it an eight point Avila deficit at 21-13 with 5:26 to play in the third.
With the victory, Avila now has six victories on the season, which sets a new program record for wins in a season. Their 6-1 record has them alone in second place in the KCAC with three regular season games left on the schedule.
The No. 25 Eagles will return to the field on Saturday when they travel to take on the Bethany Swedes in Lindsborg, Kan. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. from Anderson Stadium.