EL DORADO, Kan. — On the game-clinching play, perhaps it was fitting that 300-pound Iowa Western defensive lineman Elijah James found himself in pass coverage.
On fourth-and-2 at the Reiver 47 with 1:27 remaining, Butler made a reverse pitch to Kyle Parks, who was trying to throw it back to quarterback Trae Self, who was open.
James saw it coming.
“I knew something was up,’’ James said. “So when I saw him rolling out, I just tried to stay with him.’’
Atlias Bell and Willie O’Hara pressured Parks, who underthrew Self as the 6-foot-4 James desperately tried to use his big body to his advantage.“I guess I did,’’ he said. “I saw it was (underthrown). I just tried to move out of the way to make sure I didn’t get a pass-interference call.’’
Put in some difficult spots, Iowa Western’s defense came through time and again, and the No. 3 Reivers kept their national championship hopes alive with a gritty 19-14 victory over No. 12 Butler on Saturday at BG Products Veterans Sports Complex.
Iowa Western (8-1) had lost its previous two games at the home of the six-time national champions.
“For a few minutes there, I was thinking that I was cursed at this place,’’ Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier said. “I’m just so happy for our guys, my staff. Them battling through and all that we’ve been through in the last week. They just kept fighting.’’
Butler (7-3) took its first lead with 6:33 left in the game when Self sneaked in from the 1 to cap a 79-yard drive.
At that point, the Reivers had been held scoreless for more than 35 minutes. But quarterback T.J. Starks embraced the opportunity.
“They left us six minutes on the clock, and that was more than enough time for us to score,’’ he said.“We just had to keep our composure and play Iowa Western football. Defense, they had our backs the whole game. We told them we were going to have their backs.’’
Iowa Western immediately faced third-and-10, but an offsides penalty made it third-and-5, and Marcell Barbee made a spectacular 23-yard catch against double coverage.
Later on third-and-7, Nyfease West powered for a 15-yard gain. Five plays later,
Starks ran it in from the 5 to give the Reivers a 19-14 lead with 3:13 remaining.
“We came through,’’ Starks said. “It really feels great when you can put in the hours and see it come all together at the end.’’
Two interceptions, a lost fumble and a muffed punt gave Butler possession four times in Reiver territory: at the 9, the 24, the 16 and the 47. On all four occasions, the Grizzlies failed to score a point.
“We put our defense in some bad spots,’’ Strohmeier said. “They answered. The motto was, ‘Do whatever it takes.’’’
Iowa Western took charge early in the game thanks to a pair of Starks-to-Nick Singleton touchdown passes. The first one opened the scoring late in the first quarter and covered 15 yards, with Singleton carrying defenders the final few yards.
The second score was a 65-yard connection. Singleton — who caught five passes for 100 yards — got several yards behind the defense and made the catch, but fumbled near the goal line. Butler recovered, but the official signaled that he had broken the plane before the fumble.
After that, the Reiver offense mostly sputtered. But they put it together when it counted most.
“We already knew they were going to come through for us,’’ James said. “We knew they were clutch.’’
Playing without its top three offensive tackles, Iowa Western finished with 311 total yards. Freshmen Willie Tyler and Natnael Zemene stepped in at the tackle spots and competed hard. Zemene hadn’t been on the roster all season until this week.
“Monday he came in to talk and was just frustrated that he may not ever play for us,’’ Strohmeier said. “Tuesday he’s on the squad and Saturday he’s starting. Him and Willie just battled their tails off.’’
Iowa Western (8-1)..........7 6 0 6—19
At Butler (7-3)..................0 7 0 7—14
IW: Nick Singleton 15 pass from T.J. Starks (Hunter Pinegar kick)
IW: Singleton 65 pass from Starks (kick failed)
B: Trae Self 4 run (Tyler Zentner kick)
B: Self 1 run (Zentner kick)
IW: Starks 6 run (pass failed)
Rushing: IW, T.J. Starks 12-43, Milton Sargbah 12-41, Nyfease West 9-39, Michael Zachary 3-7, Gayflor Flomo 1-2, Clay Beathard 1-0, team 2-(minus 12). B, Vinnie Shabazz 8-46, Grahm Roberts 15-40, Makiya Casear 10-14, Trae Self 7-(minus 2).
Passing: IW, T.J. Starks 12-22-2 181; Clay Beathard 3-5-0 10. B, Trae Self 12-23-1 183; Kyle Parks 0-1-0 0.
Receiving: IW, Nick Singleton 5-100, Marcell Barbee 3-67, Michael Zachary 5-18, Milton Sargbah 2-6. B, Larry Jones 6-80, Isreal Watson 2-79, Kaden Davis 3-17, Darren Wilson 1-7.
Tackles (solos-assists): IW, Elijah James 3-7, Willie O’Hara 3-5, Morris Joseph 4-3, Korey Hernandez 4-2, Simeon Gatling 4-2. B, Amare Barno 6-3, Jordan Smith 5-3, Jacoby Jones 3-3.