by Santino Torres / Staff Reporter
The Roosevelt football program launched on Saturday, Feb. 6 at Morris Field in Arlington Heights and won their debut match against the St. Ambrose Fighting Bees by a score of 27-13.
The Lakers braved through the wintry conditions of a snowy football field and 11-degree weather at kickoff to turn in a strong showing on both sides of the ball. The ground attack was established early and often which freed up the passing game later on. The defense limited the St. Ambrose offense throughout, with only four of their 13 drives ending in Roosevelt territory. They also failed to breach 200 yards of total offense.
“I am just happy for the players and their families and everything they have been through,” said Roosevelt’s head football coach Jared Williamson. “I was real proud of their focus during this entire time and their energy. I was proud of the fact that they understood that nothing was going to be really given to them. I think we really competed for four quarters.”
The defense took the field first for the Lakers. St. Ambrose’s opening drive started at their 35-yard line, and it took seven plays for them to advance to the Roosevelt 30-yard line. Instead of opting to kick for the field goal, the Fighting Bees punted, forcing Roosevelt’s first drive to open up at the 7-yard line.
“Being that we were coming off a pandemic and not being able to hit, I feel that the most impressive aspect of that game was our actual tackling,” said sophomore business management major KeVon Robinson. “We performed our tackling at a high rate, which stopped them from getting a lot of yards.”
On Roosevelt’s first ever drive, junior accounting major Ke’von Johnson, NAIA All-American running back, quickly went to work, picking up two first downs on his two first carries. Roosevelt moved the ball on the ground for the entirety of the first drive, except for a 13-yard pass from quarterback Jack Sheehan, a graduate student majoring in business administration. The ball maneuvered toward the sideline to wide receiver Blaize Cobb-Griffin, bringing Roosevelt to the St. Ambrose 45-yard line. The drive ended when Johnson was stopped short on fourth down at the line of scrimmage, forcing a turnover on downs at the St. Ambrose 36.
St. Ambrose took three plays to turn the ball over themselves as quarterback John Benckendorf mishandled the handoff to his running back. Laker defensive back Ernest Potts then recovered the football at St. Ambrose’s 15-yard line.
“I was getting off a block, and my eyes just lit up,” said Robinson. “‘Get to the ball’ is what all of my peers have been telling me. When I saw the ball, it was just an exciting moment. As a defense, our number one goal is to get the ball back.” The middle linebacker from Oak Brook filled in as the next man up at the position, with six solo tackles while assisting on five more. One of those tackles led to a three-yard loss.
Three plays later, the Lakers scored their first ever touchdown. After Cobb-Griffin could only get to the two-yard line following a 13-yard pass from Sheehan, Johnson used the outside to outrun everybody into the end zone and give Roosevelt the 7-0 lead. Johnson finished with 127 yards on 42 carries, just over three yards per carry.
“I would give all the credit to the offensive line for opening up those holes,” Johnson said. “It was exciting to celebrate with them after scoring the first touchdown for Roosevelt.”
After the defense shut the St. Ambrose offense down once again by forcing them to go three and out, Roosevelt would go three and out themselves after they took over on offense. What would have been the first ever Roosevelt punt by Tyler Haase was blocked by St. Ambrose’s Bernard Buhake. The Fighting Bees’ Caleb Walker recovered the ball at Roosevelt’s five-yard line and had a free pass to the end zone. However, St. Ambrose failed to put more points on the board after an incomplete pass on a two-point conversion.
“You’re always happy when somebody has the opportunity to put a point on the board or three or whatever it may be and they don’t get it,” Williamson said. “We were disappointed in the execution at that point, then thrilled about them missing extra points, but also realizing a point like that could come back and haunt them later in the game.”
Roosevelt quickly responded. This time, it was Sheehan’s time to shine. He threw two deep passes — his longest of the game — hitting tight end Denzel Tolliver for 33 yards, then Cobb-Griffin for his longest 41 yards. The two and a half-minute drive concluded when Sheehan took a high snap and found Tolliver creeping toward the middle, muscling his way into the end zone to put the Lakers up by seven. However, St. Ambrose quickly pounced on a bobbled snap on the extra point to keep the game 13-6.
“Blaize is just one of those guys where I’ve had a lot of reps with him back to two years ago,” Sheehan said. “We just developed that connection and that relationship to where I trust him to go get the ball every time I throw it to him. That’s a big piece in our play.” Despite not finding the end zone, Cobb-Griffin caught six of Sheehan’s passes for 106 yards.
Roosevelt scored once more on their next drive after forcing another St. Ambrose three and out. Sheehan went deep to hit Greg Milledge for a 31-yard touchdown that put the Lakers up 20-6, capping off a five-play, 55-yard drive.
“Our ability just to move the ball the way we did and play the way we did on defense despite the elements, I think those things really were important,” Johnson said. “You could tell by the way we were playing on both sides of the ball that we were more prepared than our opponent for those elements.”
Despite forcing Roosevelt to fumble and miss a 32-yard field goal in the third quarter, St. Ambrose failed to capitalize on those opportunities. The Fighting Bees’ 11-play, 45-yard drive after the missed field goal ended at the Roosevelt 35 when Benckendorf failed to convert after getting sacked by linebacker Zavier Cordero-Barnes on third down. Defensive lineman Dionte Moorehead and linebacker Corties Draper shared the other sack which came with 7:46 left in the game.
After hitting Cobb-Griffin with a 33-yard pass in the fourth quarter, Sheehan capped off his day and the drive — which started at the St. Ambrose 31 after a turnover on downs — with a quarterback sneak touchdown that accounted for Roosevelt’s final points of the game. His 264-yard performance where he completed 19 out of 29 passes and threw for two touchdowns earned him Mid-States Football Association (MSFA) Midwest Conference Player of the Week. He never turned the ball over and was only sacked once by Buhake.
“We had a good game plan. We watched a ton of film. We were just itching to play a game. When we got out there, we were ready to roll,” Sheehan said. “I knew all the guys around me were going to show up and be ready to play. It was a combination of the blocking and the receivers and the running backs and everything. I was just doing my part to help the guys around me.”
The Fighting Bees offense scored with 3:44 left in the game, as T’Nahleg Hall sealed a six-play, 64-yard drive by reaching the end zone for a one-yard score on his sixth and final carry that cut the deficit to 27-13. He had 23 yards on the day. St. Ambrose would have one more chance to put points on the board before the end of the game, but were quickly forced to turn the ball over on downs when Benckendorf failed to get the first down on all four tries.
Of the 180 offensive yards for the Fighting Bees, Benckendorf had 158 of them, running for 37 and passing for 121 with a 15-for-36 effort. Roosevelt finished with 377 yards of total offense. Middle linebacker Tim Houlihan suffered an apparent ankle injury during the first drive of the game. There has been no further update on the status of his injury.
The Lakers’ (1-0) Feb. 16 game at St. Francis was cancelled due to the weather conditions and a rescheduled date for that game has not yet been announced. Roosevelt will play the Fighting Saints later in the month at Morris Field on Feb. 27. St. Ambrose falls to 0-1 and will play St. Francis on Feb. 21 at home.