Strong second-half performance fuels season-opening win for WashU football

| Sports Editor

Graduate quarterback Matt Rush threw for 277 passing yards and registered four touchdowns in the Bears victory against Hendrix College. (Noah Orloff | Student Life)

For the second year in a row, the Washington University football team opened their season with a non-conference matchup against Hendrix College. Last year, the Bears dominated in all aspects of the game, beating the Warriors 52-7. 

This year, however, they faced a much tougher test. Although the Warriors looked ready to defend their home turf in this year’s battle, the Bears pulled away in the second half, leaving Arkansas with a 44-27 win and a 1-0 record.

From the start, the Bears looked ready to replicate last year’s script. On the first drive of the game, Hendrix worked their way into field-goal range, but the Bears’ defense stood tall. On third-down from WashU’s 27-yard line, junior Nate Light hit the quarterback from his blindside and knocked the ball loose. Graduate student Matthew Schmal pounced on the ball, giving the Bears’ offense their first opportunity of the day.

After three runs by junior Kenneth Hamilton — including a 27-yard burst — the Bears found themselves deep into Hendrix territory. A few plays later, graduate quarterback Matt Rush lofted a fade to the corner of the end zone, where senior Gabriel Sirek snagged the ball from above a defender to open the scoring midway through the first quarter. 

Although the Bears’ defense stood tall on a 3rd and 1 on the next drive, a successful fourth-down conversion kept the Hendrix drive alive. Two plays later — following a pass into the red zone and a goal-line fade — the score was tied at seven.

The visitors responded instantly. After a kickoff return by junior wide-receiver Collin Goldberg set the offense up in Hendrix territory, the Bears continued driving as the quarter came to a close. Rush took off on a third-down scramble to start the second period, narrowly avoiding an onslaught in the backfield. In a Josh Allen-esque fashion, Rush barreled down the sideline, taking a defender with him into the endzone for the touchdown.

After Hendrix responded with a touchdown to even it up at 14, both offenses began to falter. WashU went three-and-out on their next two drives. Though Hendrix’s offense performed slightly better, WashU’s defense bended but refused to break. After the Warriors drove all the way down to the WashU one-yard line, the Bears’ defensive line stuffed consecutive handoffs on third- and fourth-downs to keep the score even going into the half. 

At the break, the Bears knew that they needed to step up their performance. “We definitely didn’t play our best football in the first half offensively and defensively,” said Goldberg. “Our last few offensive drives were three-and-outs. At halftime, we talked about just being able to, at the very least, give our defense some time to rest by putting together longer drives and making sure that we can get points on the board every time we have the ball.” 

At the start of the second half, the Bears began to pull away. After Rush found Sirek for a 41-yard gain on a 3rd and 20, he connected with junior wide-receiver Zachary Ginsburg on a post into the end-zone for a 30-yard touchdown on the following play.

On the next drive, the Bears kept their momentum going. Throughout the first half, they had struggled to stop Hendrix’s passing game, allowing Hendrix sophomore quarterback Jacob Buniff to pass for two touchdowns and nearly 250 yards in the opening 30 minutes. However, on Buniff’s first throw of the second period, sophomore linebacker Salomon Dessalines burst through a block, snagging the screen pass out of the air and taking it 25 yards to the house for a pick-six.

With a 28-14 lead, WashU maintained the pressure. After the Hendrix kick-returner fumbled the kickoff and was downed at his own one-yard line, the Bears stuffed the first-down run for a safety. Throughout the game, WashU’s defensive line was impenetrable, holding the Warriors to just 24 rushing yards on 29 attempts. When asked about their performance, Goldberg noted how important the front seven were to the victory. “We got some great dudes on the D-line and some great dudes at the linebacker level that all made plays. Anytime you can limit the team’s rushing game and force them to throw the ball, you’re gonna have success.”

However, the Warriors wouldn’t go down without a fight. After holding the Bears to a three-and-out, they scored their first points of the half on their next drive. Although they missed the extra point, the touchdown narrowed the margin to 30-20. After another defensive stop, Hendrix steadily drove down the field. When Buniff lofted the ball into the endzone, it grazed the hands of his intended receiver before bouncing fortunately into the hands of another wide-receiver waiting behind him. With just under 12 minutes remaining, the score was 30-27, and the Bears’ lead was a mere field goal.

On the next drive, the Bears responded instantly, needing just two plays to re-extend their lead. After Rush found Goldberg on a 42-yard go-route, he looked to Sirek once again. With a defender all over him and a flag-down for pass interference, Sirek made the one-handed grab for his second score of the day. 

After Hendrix quickly drove back to the WashU two-yard line, a holding flag on first and goal pushed them back 10 yards. From there, the Bears’ defense forced a 29-yard field-goal attempt. Though the kick would’ve brought the Warriors back within one possession, the kicker missed it wide left, giving the Bears the ball back with a 10-point lead and just eight minutes on the clock.

As the fourth quarter wound down, the Bears finished off their opponents. Rush hit Goldberg in stride on a 38-yard deep-shot into the endzone to make the score 44-27 with four minutes remaining. Then, as the hosts attempted to mount a comeback, sophomore safety Ryan Schmadtke leapt in front of a receiver for a game-sealing pick.

The Bears can be content to leave Arkansas with a one in the win column, while also knowing that they will need to step up their performance in order to compete with some of the national powerhouses in their conference. Fortunately for them, they will have time to make adjustments and get back to work. The Bears have a bye-week before the start of conference play at Millikin University on Sept. 16.

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