Despite a strong first half, and giving No. 10 Ashland all it could handle, the SVSU football team fell to the Eagles in its season finale, 31-19.
The loss rounded out SVSU’s 2017 record at 5-6, while Ashland claimed the outright GLIAC championship with a record of 10-1.
“We set out to play our best game of the season as a goal,” coach Jim Collins said. “We knew Ashland was a very good football team. For a lot of our players, they succeeded in playing their best game. Unfortunately, the outcome was not what we wanted, but our intensity, effort and focus was pretty good.”
SVSU looked impressive in the first half, taking a 13-10 lead into the halftime break. Redshirt freshman receiver Chad Gailliard continued his sensational season with six catches for 161 yards and a touchdown.
Gailliard’s 84.9 receiving yards per game led the GLIAC this season, and his eight touchdowns were good enough for third.
“What impressed me is how we handled this past week and the game,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Ryan Conklin said. “We had nothing to lose and just let things rip. We left nothing on the field and played tough for our seniors.”
Ashland got on the scoreboard first, capping its initial eight-play, 58-yard drive with a field goal to put the Eagles up 3-0 early.
However, SVSU answered with 13 consecutive points in the second quarter. As the first quarter ended and the second began, SVSU drove into Eagle territory with a mix of run and pass, including a 52-yard connection between Conklin and Gailliard to set up Conklin two plays later for a four-yard touchdown run, putting SVSU ahead 7-3.
“Gailliard, in my opinion, played at a level that definitely rivals some of the best receivers we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Collins said. “Ashland’s secondary was as good as any in the country, and he made some great plays.”
Following an Ashland punt, SVSU wasted no time adding to its lead, as Conklin and Gailliard connected once again, this time for a 73-yard touchdown strike. After a missed extra point, SVSU had a 10-point lead, 13-3.
“The key was having the confidence in myself and in my own ability, that it doesn’t really matter who we line up against on Saturdays, the real battle is against yourself,” Gailliard said.
Conklin finished the game 16-37 for 241 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
The Cardinals appeared to gain even more momentum on Ashland’s next drive, as it ended in a missed field goal, giving SVSU the ball back again.
However, after an 11-play drive that lasted nearly five minutes advanced only 30 yards, SVSU was forced to hand the ball back to the Eagles late in the half.
Ashland proceeded to march 80 yards over 12 plays, capping the drive off with a one-yard touchdown run from Mack Mikulski, his only carry of the day to send the game into halftime with SVSU leading by just three, 13-10.
The second half was all Ashland, as it scored 21 unanswered points to silence the upset-minded Cardinals.
“Ashland made some adjustments and performed at a higher level in the second half,” Conklin said. “They are an extremely talented team.”
The Eagles took their first drive of the second half to pay dirt, marching 65 yards on six plays as Ashland quarterback Travis Tarnowski connected with receiver Logan Bolin from eight yards out to put Ashland back on top 17-13.
Bolin was Ashland’s leading receiver on the day, hauling in nine passes for 94 yards.
The teams traded punts for much of the rest of the third quarter, and Ashland missed its second field goal of the game, keeping the score the same heading into the final quarter.
Ashland added two more touchdowns in the fourth to pull away. Tarnowski threw his second and third touchdown passes of the day, a 15-yard strike to Stanley Jackson Jr., followed by a four-yard touchdown pass to Mikulski, to put the Eagles up 31-13.
With just over a minute left, a late touchdown connection between Conklin and sophomore receiver Josh Schelke brought SVSU within 12, but Ashland ultimately won the game and the conference title.
While Conklin accounted for all three touchdowns, redshirt freshman running back Nate Moore also had a big day, carrying the ball 15 times for 102 yards.
Defensively, linebackers Bryan Jones and Michael Alexander led the Cardinal defense with 10 and eight tackles, respectively. Alexander finished the season with a team-high 94 tackles. Jones’ 403 career tackles rank him third all-time in SVSU program history.
“Against the run our defense was very good,” Collins said. “Their rushing totals were mainly on quarterback scrambles and one long run. We were not able to contain Tarnowski from extending plays and making some big runs, and that’s what we and everyone else in the GLIAC has not been able to do.”
Following back-to-back five-win seasons, SVSU will return much of its team next year, including several of its top offensive playmakers.
“There’s a lot to be excited about,” Conklin said. “We have a ton of talent returning. It is now time to get bigger, faster and stronger as well as gelling as a unit.”