ALMA, MICH. – The memories of Bahlke Field and the lower peninsula of Michigan, fondly known as The Mitten, are thick for Manchester University head football coach Nate Jensen and his family.
For four years, the field, the campus it is located on and the town it sits within were home. However, on a near perfect early September evening, the Spartans, under his tutelage, provided some new memories for their head coach at his former institution.
"It's a fantastic feeling … the coaches and players worked very hard this week, as for the season opener, we put the work in but just were not able to finish key drives or plays (at Trine)," he said. "Tonight, for the final three quarters, it was just the opposite … and I couldn't be prouder of our team and coaching staff.
It's a really good feeling," he added. "(Alma) is a program means a lot to me. Some of those seniors we played against I coached at one time. However, at the same time, I'm happy for our guys and being able to have them experience a W."
The back-and-forth 33-31 non-conference win over the host Scots did not start out well for the visitors. AC's offense took advantage of extremely favorable field position due to an interception and punt return that set them up at Manchester University's one-yard and led to easy scoring strikes and a 14-0 lead.
Jensen, seeing his team in trouble on the road for a second successive weekend against a Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association foe, did something many others have done in similar situations … he called timeout.
"We had a nice little discussion," he noted. "I told them we needed to wake up and finish – do the things we way they are coached to. It was time to play the Manchester way. We did that the next three quarters, as the guys took it to heart and played their tails off."
An 11-play, 73-yard meat grinder drive got the Spartans into the end zone as sophomore running back Donovan Henderson (Hollywood, Fla.) pounded the ball in from the one to make it 14-6. The home side appeared to be returning the favor on their next possession but a pair of penalties killed the march and forced a punt. More healthy doses of Henderson and freshman running back Casey Lawrence (Fort Wayne, Ind.) saw the visitors go 92 yards in 12 plays with Henderson crashing in from the one again to cut the margin to 14-12. The Scots ended the half with a field goal to make it 17-12, but the momentum at AC's home confines was with the team in Black and Gold.
It became even more that way as senior Dakota Nelson (Fairland, Ind.) sliced his way through the home team's kickoff coverage team and rambled 93 yards for a touchdown to start the second half, giving MU a 19-14 lead. A defensive stop later, Manchester University was back on the field and driving nearly 80 yards for another score, this one coming from sophomore quarterback Alex Downard (Indianapolis, Ind.) for a 26-17 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"Dakota's kickoff return (to start the second half) was an absolute game changer … no doubt about it," Jensen said. "We had been so close all year to knowing that at any point this can happen. (The team) did all the little things for each other on that play and throughout the second half."
Alma College junior quarterback Dylan Zabrowski nearly brought the home crowd's hopes for a late comeback to fruition, though. His arm brought AC down the field twice towards game's end with rushing scores knocking a pair of nine-point Spartan leads down to two. He and his offense had an attempt to reclaim the lead within the final three minutes but senior defensive back Mitch Oskam (St. John, Ind.) stepped in front of a pass over the middle for a takeaway that sealed the decision.
"I told the defense to just finish (on their final drive)." Jensen said. "We had a senior captain do that with a big play."
Statistical heroes were many for MU. Henderson's 20 carries for 76 and two touchdowns led the ground game; Downard was a solid 15-of-22 for 186 yards and a touchdown through the air and also rushed for a score; Nelson was his favorite target with seven catches for 80 yards and also supplied the second half igniting kickoff return; senior linebacker Jack Kay (Williamsport, Ind.) was back to his old tricks of finding himself bringing down an opponent offensive player with a unit best 11 tackles; and Oskam and junior linebacker Quantae Miller (Dayton, Ohio) each tallied an interception, and sophomore defensive back De'Lon Barnes (Los Angeles, Calif.) recovered a fumble and tallied nine tackles.
Manchester University breaks from action next week for its bye week. The Spartans return to action opening their home and Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference schedule Saturday, Sept. 23, versus Mt. St. Joseph University of Ohio.