Daginella and clutch defense pick up second win for football
On head coach Larry Kindbom’s 60th birthday, the Washington University football team fought hard for 60 minutes, hoping to reward him with a win. With only a minute left in the fourth quarter and the score 18-13 in Wash. U.’s favor, the Bears’ defensive players knew that it was up to them to close the tight game against Denison University.
On fourth-and-two at the Wash. U. 33-yard line, the Big Red went to its running back, Sam Fioroni, to keep its hopes alive. But Bears’ junior defensive lineman Jeff Stoecker saw it coming and made a crucial tackle that stopped Fioroni one yard short of the first-down marker, giving the Red and Green its second win of the season.
“All Saturdays are special days for me, but it was especially nice to see us win today,” Kindbom said. “We were competitive all day, and we knew it would be a dogfight. It was fun to see us make big plays up to the last minute. It was really a treat.”
Coming off of their bye week two weeks before, the Bears opened the second half of their season with a stinging 34-14 loss against No. 15 Wabash College, giving up 479 yards of offense and converting only one out of 12 attempts on third down. While injuries to key players including senior quarterback Dan Burkett, sophomore defensive back Ryan Bednar and junior defensive back Scott O’Brien have hurt the team this season, the underclassmen and backups have grown tremendously in the past few weeks, playing disciplined football that ultimately led to the win against Denison.
“Guys are really stepping up everywhere,” senior defensive lineman William Small said. “It’s really cool seeing underclassmen like Mitch [McMahon, tight end] rise up to the challenge, and their leadership has been growing as well…they’re just getting better every day.”
At the beginning of the season, it was unlikely to think that junior quarterback Eric Daginella would be leading the team for half of the season. But over the past two weeks, Daginella has shown his ability to be a good starter. He played well against Denison, completing 16 out of 30 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns, one to McMahon for seven yards and another to sophomore wide receiver Ryan Lubatkin for 19 yards.
Daginella has not only controlled the ball well as a starter, throwing only one interception in the past two starts, but he has also impressed with his uncanny ability to extend plays.
“His presence on the field is great, and he’s looking very poised in the pocket,” Kindbom said. “He’s improving each game, and it’s not like he just suddenly became good. He’s worked extremely hard to get to this point. He’s made several big time throws so far, and he’s a very courageous player. He’s been a spark for this offense, and he’s made this team better.”
On special teams, freshman kicker Alex Hallwachs showed his accuracy and strength, drilling a 45-yard field goal in the first quarter and another in the fourth quarter from 36 yards out. While there was a miscue on a point-after attempt in the second quarter, Hallwachs’ two field goals turned out to be crucial to the Bears’ five-point lead in the end. Senior punter Eric Chalifour made several kickoffs and punts to put the Bears’ defense in good situations.
“Alex has been kicking very well in practice,” Kindbom said. “We have competition every day, and we felt that he would play well in the game. It seemed right to put him in, and it worked for us in the end.”
Despite giving up more than 300 yards on the ground to Wabash, the Bears’ defense made a significant turnaround against Denison, limiting the Big Red to 139 yards rushing and 188 yards passing.
“I think it was important for us to make good first down stops,” junior defensive back Tate Byers said. “We did that all day, and it put the defense in ideal third-down situations. We were focused, and we, most importantly, didn’t give up any big plays.”
In addition, the Red and Green’s defensive line pressured Big Red quarterback Max Paulus throughout the game, forcing two sacks for 20 yards. Junior defensive back Andrew Skalman made a crucial play in the second quarter, forcing an interception in the red zone and stopping a potential scoring drive.
According to Kindbom, the defense has gotten much better in terms of communication, which has boosted the Bears’ confidence.
“There were so many excellent plays made on defense that kept us in the game. The defense’s confidence has grown each week,” Kindbom said. “I think that definitely showed when they went out and closed the game for us.”
With three games left in the season, the Red and Green hopes to continue their success against Carnegie Mellon University next Saturday at home at 12 p.m. Although Wash. U.’s chase for the playoffs has ended, the team is hoping to win the University Athletic Association conference.
“The goal is to win every game we have left, but our guys are also fired up to win the conference,” Small said. “Right now, we’re focused on Carnegie and ready for the last stretch of the season.”