SIOUX CITY | With No. 18-ranked Doane riding a seven-game home winning streak, Job One for the Morningside College football team was simply bagging a win.
However, with the Mustangs sitting on a 28-0 lead and time running out last Saturday in Crete, Neb., the host Tigers sought to save a little face with a late drive that gave them a first-and-goal at the Morningside one-yard line.
That’s when NAIA football’s stingiest defense decided to draw a line in the proverbial sand, stacking up two running plays for a pair of two-yard losses with an incomplete pass in between.
Frustrated Doane was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And, backed up to the 20, it took a 37-yard Phil Thramer field goal to avert a shutout with 1:11 to play.
“When they scored that field goal, it made a lot of us really, really mad,’’ said senior linebacker Chris Calvillo. “It was almost like we lost the game, we were that mad.’’
It’s all about pride for a defensive unit with eight senior starters who’ve helped the Mustangs limit five opponents, three of them nationally ranked, to just 27 total points.
“We go in every week with about five or six different game goals,’’ said the former Bishop Heelan all-stater who has a team-leading 41 tackles midway through a 10-game schedule. “Keeping our opponents below 10 points is one of our goals, but I think this year, as a veteran team, we want to make that goal to have no one score on us.’’
Denied a second consecutive shutout by Doane’s late field goal, Morningside’s defense helped the Mustangs overcome a sub-par outing for senior quarterback Joel Nixon, who was intercepted four times after being picked off only once in four previous starts.
“It wasn’t even a big deal to any of us when Joel threw that fourth interception,’’ said Calvillo, who calls signals for the defense. “Everyone was yelling, ‘That’s fine, we’re just going to have to go back out there and get him the ball back. That’s what we do. We pick him (Nixon) up and they (the offense) always end up putting the ball in the end zone.’’
The son of Liz Morehead and Mike Calvillo, whose father was a Heelan linebacker and team captain as a senior in the fall of 1979, Chris played on a young 2007 Crusader squad that lost in a Class 3A state title game to Keokuk and quarterback James Vandenberg, now in his second season as Iowa’s starting signal-caller.
Although the 6-2, 225-pounder made a recruiting visit to Morningside, he opted to begin college at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge. Unfortunately, a preseason injury to his left shoulder ended his only season there before it ever began.
Calvillo opted to leave after one semester, transferring to Morningside.
“I wish I would have come here right out of high school because I love it,’’ he said.
Still, an injury to his right shoulder ended his freshman season with the Mustangs in their very first game. Then, after an injury-free sophomore campaign, he missed five games last fall with a fractured foot.
“He’s done a great job of lifting weights and getting himself in shape for this season and it shows,’’ said Morningside Coach Steve Ryan. “Guys that take the time like that, it shows in the kind of year they have.’’
Morningside still employs the same 3-4 defensive scheme Ryan has employed throughout his 11 seasons at the helm. It has held his teams in good stead, providing the foundation for eight consecutive NAIA playoff teams. However, this year’s platoon has been a cut above the norm, leading the nation in fewest points (5.4 a game) and fewest rushing yards allowed (43.8 yards per contest).
“A lot of it is experience,’’ said Ryan. “Those guys really haven’t given up big plays this year. Our senior group of defensive players is playing fantastic.’’
“We have basically the same guys on the field (as last season), we’re just that many games smarter -- we can adjust to the speed of the game,’’ said Calvillo.
“My biggest thing right now is I make sure we’re all on the same page. Even if we’re not particularly in the right defense, just to make sure we’re all running the same defense is the important thing. As a defense, we’re tough. We’re not going to back down.’’
Ninth-year Morningside assistant Casey Jacobsen and fifth-year aide Nate Turner are in their second season as co-coordinators for a defense that has an all-senior starting secondary of Ben Rickord, Trevor Strong, Jared Goforth and 2011 NAIA Defensive Player of the Year Colby Henderson. Outside linebackers Sean Elliot and Taylor Johnson are also seniors along with defensive lineman Keith Chvatal.
The Mustangs may face their stiffest defensive challenge in Saturday’s 2 p.m. homecoming game with 19th-ranked Dakota Wesleyan, a 4-1 team that features the GPAC’s leading passer and rusher. DWU quarterback Jon Bane, a junior, is averaging 326.5 yards passing per game while senior running back Josh Endres is the runaway league rushing leader with 822 yards in five starts, or 164.4 per contest.