Football earns bid to NCAA playoffs
With an opportunity to end a 13-season playoff drought, the Washington University football team had its season on the line against the University of Chicago on a windy Saturday afternoon at Francis Field. Senior quarterback Eric Daginella’s 10-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Hank Childs with less than three minutes left sealed a 17-7 victory, keeping the hope for a playoff berth alive. That hope became a reality at the NCAA selection show on Sunday evening as the room of players and coaches erupted in cheers. The Bears will play at No. 20 Franklin College at 12 p.m. EST Saturday in the first round.
“Regardless of what happened, I was comfortable that we gave ourselves a chance to win,” head coach Larry Kindbom said. “It was real sweet to get picked. That decision was obviously very difficult, but we appreciate their decision and we want to represent that decision well.”
Wash. U. returns to the postseason for the second time in the football program’s 117 year-history. The team’s only previous appearance came in 1999, when Hardin-Simmons University downed the Red and Green 28-21.
The Bears finished their regular season with a seven-game win streak, the University Athletic Association title, the Founders Cup and an 8-2 record, their best since 2001. Through the struggles of critical injuries, offensive struggles and mental mistakes, the Bears never blinked in the face of adversity and remained confident in their abilities. Junior defensive back Ryan Bednar believes that confidence was evident against the Maroons.
Kindbom “has been telling us how special our team is, and I think we just took that to heart,” Bednar said. “We played with a lot of passion and aggression, and we didn’t let the thought of playoffs get to us during the game.”
The aggression could be seen on special teams midway through the second quarter as Kindbom called a fake punt on fourth down and 10 at the Maroons’ 45-yard line. The gamble paid off, with senior wide receiver and former quarterback John O’Connor completing a 20-yard first-down pass to sophomore running back Cody Ratermann.
“It was John [O’Connor] who made that call, and it was a good decision,” Kindbom said. “We talked with him about having the confidence to fake it regardless of game score or position on the field. He was just confident enough to do it in a big game like this, and all that practice came to good use.”
Offensively, the Bears played efficiently and effectively enough for most of the game, relying on Daginella’s accurate short passing game and some strong carries by Ratermann and freshman running back Austin Smestad, who combined for a total of 105 yards on the ground. The offensive line’s performance provided running lanes for the Bears’ ground attack and also helped wear down UChicago’s defense.
“We’ve played so many great defenses this year that we weren’t really afraid of UChicago,” junior offensive lineman Will Thompson said. “We gave up some sacks, but we did pretty well in getting to the second level of our blocking in the game. Fortunately, we got that done, which opened up the run game and got them tired.”
While the Red and Green failed to convert on 11 of their 15 third downs, turned the ball over twice and struggled with the Maroons’ adjusted defense in the third quarter, Wash. U. remained calm in the fourth and continued to make short completions to keep the chains moving.
“You’ve got to give credit to UChicago’s defense. They snagged us for a little bit after the half, but we adjusted and focused more on short passes,” Daginella, who completed 18 of his 32 passes for 178 yards, said. “It did take us a while to find a solution, but we got to them at the end, which is what matters.”
Limiting the Maroons’ run game to only 69 yards and third-down conversions to four of 14, and forcing two interceptions and two fumbles, the Bears’ defense fought hard in the trenches, putting constant pressure on UChicago’s quarterback. While the Bears’ secondary gave up chunks of yards to UChicago’s deep passing, Wash. U. maintained its strong red-zone defense, surrendering only one touchdown in three attempts.
“We were going for the shutout as always,” senior defensive linemen Nelson Nwumeh said. “We didn’t get that done, but we still got great pressure on. We just bounced back and adjusted. We’ve been really clicking for most of the season, and this game was another great example of our resilience.”