SIOUX CITY | Jumping off to big starts has been the norm thus far in Dennis Wagner’s second season as Briar Cliff’s head football coach.
The Chargers scored touchdowns on defense, special teams and offense while sporting a 20-0 halftime lead in a 40-13 season-opening win over Waldorf. Last Thursday while bolting to a 21-0 first quarter lead in a 49-20 win over then-No. 25 Dakota State, Kwame Johnson, on his way to a 94-yard rushing night, carried for touchdowns of four and three yards while Markel Roby returned an interception 75 yards for a touchdown.
“It’s a tribute to our coaches having a good game plan and giving our opponents something different to look at and see how they adjust,” said Wagner, whose squad will host Hastings in a Great Plains Athletic Conference showdown battle of 2-0 teams at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“Our guys have bought into our system and have given it a great effort. We’re able to play our two-deep roster, which is important as the season goes on. We just need to be a better second-half football team.”
Briar Cliff had scored at least one touchdown in its first seven quarters of the season. Dakota State, the first nationally-ranked team to fall to the Chargers since Midland Lutheran lost 14-7 in 2004, had a 14-0 fourth-quarter advantage.
“In the fourth quarter, when we had decided we were going to pull our guys out (Dakota State), gobbled up yards,” said Wagner. “We have to expect those guys to play the same as our first group. The first group could have done a better job too.”
Hastings has two come-from-behind wins. Running back Tahj Willingham (269 yards rushing, 2 TDs) capped a rally from a 21-0 halftime deficit with a 17-yard touchdown run with 12:01 left in the fourth quarter of a 25-21 victory over Peru State.
Willingham carried for 135 yards in that game, then rushed for 122 yards in a 26-17 win over Panhandle State Sept. 1. Quarterback Clark Livingston (414 yards passing, 2 TDs) threw for 252 yards and a touchdown for the Broncos, which trailed 17-7 in the second quarter.
Livingston directs the first triple-option package Briar Cliff has seen this season.
“That quarterback is very poised,” said Wagner. “He’s the best quarterback we’ve seen at this point of the season. They have an All-American tailback. Once that offense gets into a niche and once they figure out what works, they stay with it. This is going to be a good four-quarter game.”
Livingston, Willingham (1,430 yards rushing, 18 TDs in 2017) and fullback Tyree Nesmith (93 yards rushing, 1 TD) are each involved in the triple-option. There’s explosive potential, as Willingham burst for a 28-yard gain against Peru State and a 24-yarder against Panhandle State, a team which like Hastings, has received votes in the NAIA rankings.
Nesmith had a 17-yard rush and a 34-yard catch against Panhandle State. Numbers like that certainly have caught Wagner's attention.
“You have a lot of responsibilities against the triple-option,” said Wagner. “We have to force them to earn every yard. It will be huge for us to control the option game and stop huge gains in the passing game.
“I like the way we have run to the ball. The guys are doing a tremendous job of playing within the scheme. We need better tackling. We had an open field tackle (against Dakota State) against a wide receiver where our defensive back missed a tackle and the safety had to make a play 30 yards away. We can’t give up big plays on missed tackles.”
Inside linebacker Caleb Wilson leads Briar Cliff’s defense with 15 tackles after two games, four more than his brother Tyler, a defensive lineman. Roby has two interceptions from his strong safety position, the same amount as cornerback Casey Brown.
Quarterback Brad Cagle has passed for 537 yards and six touchdowns, his scoring passes thrown to four players including wide receiver Elijah Brown (10 catches, 156 yards, 3 TDs). Rushing leader Noah Ylagan (114 yards, 1 TD) carried for 218 yards and a touchdown in last year’s 45-14 loss at Hastings.