There was probably no KCAC football team more shrouded in mystery before the season than McPherson College’s Bulldogs.
When first-year coach Pete Sterbick stood in front of the audience at KCAC Media Day in August at Salina, many were wondering who or what he exactly had. The Bulldogs as recently as 2010 had won the KCAC title, and gone 19-3 when you include the 2009 season, but it unraveled in 2011, leading to the departure of coach Joe Bettasso.
Sterbick said at the time the Bulldogs had some quality players, though the team had been hard hit by academic difficulties, resulting in some players not being eligible for the season. But we vowed he and his staff would take the players there who would buy into his system and coach them to the best of their abilities, instilling discipline on the field and in the classroom.
Opposing teams found out in a hurry what Mac was made of. In the Bulldogs’ first game of the season, they took nationally ranked Missouri Valley (now No. 3 in the country) down to the wire before losing 27-13, with the final touchdown for the winners coming in the final minute of the game
While a majority of the players are holdovers from last year’s 4-7 team, Sterbick and his staff have guided the Bulldogs to a 3-2 record, 3-1 in the KCAC for a tie for second place at the halfway point of the season. Their only KCAC loss came when a Friends prayer was answered, as the Falcons scored on a tipped pass with 9 seconds left to win, 18-17.
The Bulldogs have a bye today, and they’ll sit back and watch the KCAC race perhaps take some semblance of shape since some of the contenders are matched.
“I think we’re probably in the range of where I thought we’d be,” said Sterbick, who is on the road this weekend. “We’re not all on the same page all the time, but we’re getting there. We’ve got lots of good kids here. We’re kind of demanding as a staff and they’ve for the most part responded well.”
The Bulldogs’ offense has been paced by quarterback Jake Snodgrass, who is among the best in the KCAC. Sterbick said he’s made huge strides from last season and even from spring practice. He’s emerged as both a pass-run threat and for the most part has made good decisions. He’s also an Academic All-American and up for a national honor because of his combination of football skill and academic achievements.
The Bulldogs’ skill position players are not flashy, but efficient. Sterbick has been using a four-man rotation at running back, and all have had their moments. He feels comfortable with whomever is on the field, as each has a particular strength.
Julius Record, however, has emerged as arguably the KCAC’s top receiver, despite being somewhat subpar physically a couple of games. He had 14 catches in the opener against Missouri Valley, then 15 last week.
Sterbick also has made more use of his tight ends than perhaps any team in the KCAC. Paul Rotering and Byron O’Rourke have come up huge time and again, especially on key third- and fourth-down plays.
The offensive line was thought to be the weak link before the season, but Sterbick said it has been a pleasant surprise despite depth issues and some shuffling, which has resulted in James Temaat, a former tight end, becoming one of the KCAC’s best as his position.
Defensively is where the team has caught the KCAC by storm.
“That’s probably where we’ve made the biggest strides,” said Sterbick, giving kudos to first-year defensive coordinator Steve Fox, as he’s developed a unit among the Top 10 in the country. “They have been really flying to the ball. And nine of the starters are either sophomores or juniors, so we feel real good about that.”
And it’s a group that plays extremely well together, with different players seemingly stepping up each week. The secondary, such a problem area last year, has emerged as a tough, ballhawking unit to throw against.
The Bulldogs reached their high-water mark last week in allowing Bethel only 75 yards of total offense, 6 in the first half. The only Thresher score was a fumble return.
Because of Thursday’s announcement that the McPherson College game with Tabor has been canceled, the Bulldogs will have an open date on Oct. 20 and play only a nine-game schedule.
Sterbick said he was in complete support of the decision. He also hopes the schools can come together, heal and move on in life in a positive manner.