JU escapes Butler, doldrums to stay in PFL race
JU quarterback Josh McGregor (2) had a career-best 422 yards Saturday when it counted.
JU quarterback Josh McGregor (2) had a career-best 422 yards Saturday when it counted.
The Jacksonville University football team began its Senior Day game against Butler Saturday in a listless, somber mood. It only took a halftime speech by an injured offensive lineman and a couple of trash cans to keep the game from becoming a full blown pall.

Sophomore Adrian Riley caught a 71-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Josh McGregor with 12:46 to play giving the Dolphins their first lead of the game on the way to a 34-24 win over Butler. The win was the nation’s-best 14th consecutive home win for JU and, more importantly, kept the Dolphins (7-3, 6-1) in the thick of the Pioneer Football League conference title chase.

A win next week at San Diego would give JU a share of the crown with Drake, which finished its season Saturday by beating Dayton and with one loss in the conference. San Diego is the third team in the mix with only once conference defeat.

The Dolphins were lucky to be down only 21-17 at the half after their lethargic start which saw the Bulldogs (5-5, 3-4) jump out to a 14-0 lead before the first quarter ended.

JU scored its 17 points in the second quarter on a 24-yard field goal by Bladen Gudz, a 3-yard touchdown run by McGregor and 13-yard scoring pass from McGregor to fellow senior Larry Thompson, who now has caught a pass in 30 consecutive games.

At halftime, injured center Kevin Halverson (finger) did his best Anthony Robbins with a motivational speech to his teammates.

“I saw we came out flat and needed to get some enthusiasm going, not false enthusiasm but real enthusiasm because there’s a total difference (between the two),’’ Halverson said. “I feel like we came out as a totally different team the second half. I respect these guys … they did it, not me. It was all them.’’

In addition to Halverson’s speech, coach Kerwin Bell took his frustration out on some inanimate objects.

“My deal was I kicked a few garbage cans and got a little excited,'' Bell said. “I told them if we’re going to lose, let’s lose playing with passion, let’s lose with a chip on our shoulders, let’s not lose like this. Sure enough, our kids responded and I’m proud of that.’’

After a tight third quarter in which Butler scored the only points on a field goal, the Dolphins scored back-to-back TDs in the fourth.

First, McGregor, who finished the day with a career-best 422 yards passing, connected with senior Josh Philpart on a 4-yard scoring play. It was the 114th career touchdown pass for McGregor which set the all-time PFL record and moved him into sixth place on the all-time FCS list. He also moved into 18th place on the all-time FCS passing yardage list with 11,016. He overtook Idaho's Doug Nussmeier (10,824) to get there and is only 64 yards away from 16th place (Dave Dickenson of Montana, 11,080).

McGregor finished his day with the winning 71-yard toss to Riley.

“(Receivers) coach (Ernie) always taught me to look the ball in first, make one move then go and as soon as I saw the one defender I made the move and took off,’’ Riley said. “I saw open field and knew I was going to score.’’

“Our players were in a somber mood all week,’’ Bell said. “I don’t know if it was after the loss (a 31-24 setback at Drake last week) and just the shock , losing for the first time in 16 games but we came out in that kind of mood in the game and made some adjustments.’’

Bell noted that defensive coordinator Jerry Odom is playing with the deck stacked against him.

“Ten of our top players on defense are out for the year; we’re doing a lot of this with smoke and mirrors a little bit,’’ he said. “We had to give Jerry time to get that sorted out. Sure enough our kids responded and I’m proud of that. If we win in San Diego, this group of seniors will have their third championship. They deserve it, they’re great kids and have done a lot for our program.’’

-- Jim Nasella