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No moral victories: From passing to punting, DWU struggles at Briar Cliff

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Dakota Wesleyan University's Spencer Neugebauer runs after catching the ball past Presentation College's Avry Rice on September 7 at Joe Quintal Field. (Ryan Deal / Republic)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- Dakota Wesleyan University experienced a seismic shift from non-conference to Great Plains Athletic Conference play.

A week after notching its first shutout win since 2013, the Tigers (1-2, 0-1 GPAC) opened their GPAC schedule by allowing Briar Cliff (Iowa) to score its third-most points in program history in a 47-0 loss on Saturday. DWU was shutout for the first time since 2012.

Special team woes

DWU’s struggles on special teams was a microcosm of its Saturday afternoon. It went from arguably the Tigers’ most stable area to a disaster.

It started on their first punt attempt when Tate Gale fumbled the snap and was taken down for a 13-yard loss. And it snowballed from there.

Gale exited the game with an injury after the Chargers blocked their first of two punts -- the second coming on Mitchell native Kiel Nelson’s pooch attempt. It was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, which was the first of two allowed by special teams.

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Markel Roby opened the second half by returning the kickoff 94 yards to the house, followed by backup punter Zach Collins being sacked for a safety in the fourth.

Collins’ struggles in his Tiger debut stemmed from more than a poor snap in the end zone. He had a 52-yard punt, but six went 30 yards or fewer as he averaged only 29.7 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, Briar Cliff downed three punts inside the 20.

“Hopefully we learned our lesson that the things we practice and talk about are pretty serious,” DWU coach Ross Cimpl said. “If you don’t take it seriously, they’re going to cost you games and points. If that doesn’t help us learn our lesson, I don’t know what we can do.”

Defense still plays tough

After a 47-point loss, it was hard for Cimpl to be happy about moral victories. If he were to look for one, though, it would come from the defense. Despite being on the field for 37 minutes and handed poor field position, it was only responsible for 24 points allowed.

Missed tackles and blown assignments led to big plays, especially late in the game, and the Chargers converted all five fourth-down attempts. But led by Tyler Wagner’s team-high seven tackles and four tackles for loss, DWU held Briar Cliff scoreless in the first quarter and to 3-for-17 on third downs.

Briar Cliff had its chances early, starting three of its first five drives in DWU territory. Emmanuel Christopher recovered a fumble as the Tigers held it to seven points up to that point, albeit thanks in part to two missed field goals.

“When you take away all the other stuff away, we still gave up (24) points,” Cimpl said. “We don’t believe in moral victories. Even if we don’t have the mistakes on offense, we gave up too many points to win.”

An incomplete passing game

For all 22 minutes, 53 seconds DWU’s offense was on the field, Briar Cliff’s defense dominated every facet of the game. It held the Tigers to 40 yards and one first down which didn’t come from a penalty.

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Nelson never looked comfortable in the pocket due to a consistent pass rush, but he also overthrew open targets over the middle of the field and on screens. The freshman went 1-for-13 for 14 yards, a fumble and two interceptions, including a pick-six. It would have been three picks if Preston Emerson didn’t turn into a defensive back on an overthrow

Zachary Lester replaced Nelson in the third quarter, though couldn’t jumpstart the offense. He went 3 of 8 for 14 yards and was hit hard by Michael Williams twice.

The change, “doesn’t mean we have an open (quarterback) competition,” according to Cimpl, heading into DWU’s 7 p.m. showdown against No. 10 Northwestern (Iowa) on September 21 at Joe Quintal Field. But it was far from a banner day for an offense now averaging 97 passing yards per contest.

“We had to change things up and see if it would help,” Cimpl said. “And unfortunately for us, it didn’t change a whole lot.”

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