For the second straight week, the McPherson College football team put a scare into a top-20 league opponent but could not hold on as Sterling College emerged with a 50-34 win on Senior Day Saturday afternoon at McPherson Stadium.
The Bulldogs (3-7, 2-7 Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference) took the opening kickoff and marched down to the Sterling 1-yard line before a Tyrone Campbell fumble ended the drive.
The Warriors (9-2, 8-1 KCAC) responded with a 10-play, 98-yard drive capped off by a 31-yard touchdown pass from Eric Butler to Jordan Dye.
After McPherson moved just 11 yards on its second drive, Sterling took over at its own 10-yard line. The Warriors moved 90 yards in 17 plays to extend the lead to 14-0 when Butler scored on a 12-yard quarterback keeper.
McPherson responded with a quick five-play drive covering 70 yards before Jake Tiernan hooked up with Brandt Wolters for a 43-yard touchdown.
The teams traded scores on the next two drives. Sterling's Aaron Chisholm scored on an 11-yard run, while McPherson countered with a 35-yard TD pass from Tiernan to Jackson Goodmiller.
The Warriors were able to get a first down on the first play of the ensuing drive, but the drive stalled with a sack and a pair of incomplete passes. On fourth down, punter Michael Winstead was brought down at the Sterling 34 after not being able to get a kick off.
On the first play after the turnover on downs, Tiernan found Eman McNeal from 24 yards out to tie the game at 21 with 43 seconds before halftime.
Sterling needed just three plays after receiving the second-half kickoff to retake the lead. Chisholm had a five-yard carry on first down, then Butler found Dye and Darryl Terrell on back-to-back 30-yard completions, the last resulting in a touchdown. Holder Taylor Richter took a bad snap on the PAT attempt and scored around the right end to give the Warriors a 29-21 lead.
The Bulldogs were driving on their first drive of the second half but turned the ball over on another Campbell fumble just past midfield.
The Warriors converted the turnover into points six plays later as Chisholm scored on a 4-yard run.
McPherson nearly had its next drive spoiled by a fumble as well, but Desmond Anderson was there to immediately jump on the ball and keep the possession alive. Three plays later, Tiernan hooked up with a wide-open Cullen Grabast for a 38-yard score. The Bulldogs went for two but Tiernan's pass to Wolters sailed high, leaving Sterling with a 36-27 lead.
Sterling took the ensuing kickoff and drove inside the McPherson 20 before stalling out. After a pair of incomplete passes from the 21, Butler scrambled for six yards to set up a fourth-and-4. His pass to Terrell was dropped, though, turning the ball over to the Bulldogs on downs.
Early in the fourth quarter, McPherson cut the lead to just two as Tiernan found McNeal from 31 yards out with 13:17 to play. The Warriors responded on the ensuing drive as Chisholm scored on a 2-yard dive. Chisholm also had the big play on the drive, breaking a 39-yard run on the first play.
The teams traded punts on the next two drives. McPherson saw its next drive curtailed by an interception. Sterling was quickly able to capitalize and extend the lead to two scores with a 43-yard run by Chisholm with 7:47 left.
The Bulldogs were not able to crack the end zone on either of their final two drives. The first drive was ended when Tiernan's pass to Wolters on a fourth-and-2 at the Sterling 34 was broken up by Swain Williams. Dwight Wilkerson ended the second with an interception to seal the Warriors victory.
McPherson finished with 508 yards of total offense — the team's second-highest output of the season (575 at Bethany).
After starting the game by completing 22 of his first 24 passes, Tiernan ended up 26 of 37 for 360 yards and five touchdowns.
McNeal (eight catches, 106 yards, two TDs) and Wolters (five catches, 103 yards, one TD) each went over 100 yards receiving, while Goodmiller had six catches for 65 yards and a score.
Corey Davis led the Bulldogs on the ground with 50 yards on eight carries.
"I thought we did some nice things," said head coach Paul Mierkiewicz. "We had a couple of turnovers in some tough areas that shut some things down for us, but I thought, all-in-all, we played really well along the offensive line. There were some breakdowns, but we're playing a really good team. Our kids battled through like I thought they would."
Butler was 25-of-39 for 324 yards and two touchdowns to lead Sterling, while Chisholm ran for 208 yards and four touchdowns on 21 carries.
Terrell hauled in 11 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown, while Dye added four catches for 81 yards and a score.
Williams led the Warriors with eight stops on defense. He also broke up three passes.
Ashton Serpas — in his final game as a Bulldog — made nine tackles, including six solo stops to lead McPherson. Patrick Calip and Thomas Lanktree added seven stops apiece, while Joseph Hunter had six and Killian Millner posted a sack.
"When we got them off their schedule, we were in better shape defensively," added Mierkiewicz. "[Sterling] has so many weapons, though, that it makes life a little bit difficult.
This game marked the final game in a Bulldog uniform for eight seniors — running back Campbell, defensive backs Serpas, Isaac Murphy and Ben Padilla, defensive end Isaiah Hill, offensive linemen Jaelon Barnes and Wesley Stevenson, and wide receiver JJ Aleman-Perez. All were honored in a pregame ceremony, as was Braden Bush. Bush, who passed away in June due to a severe asthma attack, would have played his final game Saturday as well.
"There are three seniors — four with Braden — who were here when I was first got here [three years ago]," continued Mierkiewicz. "They, and the transfers that came in and went two years, have done such a great job. They just set a standard of where we want to be. Now, the challenge is on the future classes to continue to raise that standard to the point where we're able to get leads and finish games. This is a tough league. We've made some major strides, but there is some work to do in recruiting to get us better. I'm happy with where we're at. Obviously, we'd like to win more games, but I think we're in a position where we can continue to build."
The Bulldogs are tentatively scheduled to open the 2018 schedule Saturday, Sept. 1, with a home game against McPherson County rival Bethany College before traveling to KCAC newcomer Avila University the following weekend.