Football wins season opener over Valparaiso

The Big Green overcame offensive struggles to win 28-18 on the road.

by Will Ennis | 9/21/21 2:00am

derek_kyler

Returning fifth-year Derek Kyler '21, the Big Green starting quarterback, led Dartmouth to a win in the team's season opener on Saturday.

by Gracie Goodwin / The Dartmouth Staff

In its first game since winning the Ivy League championship two years ago, the Dartmouth football team showed some signs of two years’ rust before coming away with a hard-fought 28-18 road victory over Valparaiso University on Saturday.

“Truth be told, I was a little nervous going through the pregame warmup and starting the game up,” linebacker Jalen Mackie ’22 said. “As we got things rolling… the butterflies went away. It just felt like riding a bike.”

“As we got things rolling… the butterflies went away. It just felt like riding a bike.”

The game started to go Valparaiso’s way early in the first quarter, when Dartmouth’s initial offensive drive traveled 15 yards in the wrong direction and the Big Green conceded a safety. The Crusaders were able to hit a field goal their next trip down the field after a nearly eight-minute long offensive possession, increasing Dartmouth’s deficit to 5-0. 

With the team trailing more than 10 minutes into the game with just one offensive possession to its name and no production to speak of, this could have been a moment of panic for the Dartmouth offense. However, returning fifth-year Derek Kyler ’21, the Big Green starting quarterback, came to the huddle intent on keeping his team’s confidence intact.

“It's a lot of nerves when you're first coming up and it's been so long since you've played football,” Kyler said. “So I just tried to keep everyone calmed down and steady and let them know we're okay, we're going to be fine, just come back the next drive, and do what we can. We're going to win this game.”

Kyler’s leadership proved effective, as the Big Green marched down the field that very drive and scored its first touchdown of the season. Two plays after converting on a key fourth down, Kyler found running back Zack Bair ’22 open near the left sideline. After evading an open-field tackle, Baird raced down the sideline all the way to the end zone, capping off a 41-yard reception with a touchdown and putting the Big Green in the lead by a score of 7-5.

Saturday was Bair’s first game since tearing his ACL in a game against the University of Pennsylvania in 2019. In his return to the field against Valparaiso, he was the engine of the Big Green’s offense, picking up 92 rushing yards and one touchdown on 14 carries in addition to catching three passes for 57 yards and his first-quarter touchdown.

Dartmouth came out energized in the second quarter and, after forcing a Valparaiso punt, went on an eight-play, 78-yard drive capped off by a six-yard touchdown pass to receiver Paxton Scott ’24, stretching the Big Green lead to 14-5. Valparaiso was able to answer with a field goal before the end of the quarter, sending the game to halftime with the score 14-8 in favor of Dartmouth.

Multiple teammates described Scottt as a younger, less experienced player who was able to make a notable impact in the season opener, and the numbers back it up. Scott ended the day with eight receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown, earning him Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors. Bair said it did not show that it was Scott’s first collegiate game, a sentiment that Kyler echoed.

“He actually really caught everyone's eyes,” Kyler said. “We knew what he was capable of, but it was good to see him put it out there in front of everyone, for everyone to see.”

Dartmouth started the second half on offense and was able to stretch the lead even further with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped off by a touchdown pass to Jonny Barrett ’23. 21-8, Dartmouth.

The Valparaiso defense responded to its largest deficit of the game in force. The next two offensive drives for Dartmouth resulted in a second safety and a fumble, a turnover that the Crusaders converted into a touchdown on their ensuing possession. Suddenly, the Big Green’s once-comfortable lead was cut to just three points with 16 minutes to play.

“A lot of different mistakes were made in the game and we're just gonna have to take those,” Bair said. “We can't dwell on them, we gotta just learn from them, make the changes we need, and make sure they don't carry into next week.”

Before thinking about the next week, though, there was still a game to win. And after Dartmouth fumbled the ball back to Valparaiso on the eighth play of the team’s next offensive possession, Valparaiso moved 40 yards down the field in four plays and Dartmouth’s lead seemed more in doubt than ever.

On the fifth play of the Valparaiso drive, Dartmouth linebackers Tanner Cross ’21 and Marques White ’23 were both able to get to the quarterback, applying pressure and forcing a poor throw. The ball found its way into a waiting player’s hands, but unfortunately for Valparaiso, that player was Dartmouth’s Mackie. 

Mackie, with his “butterflies” firmly in the rearview, picked the pass off — his first career interception at any level of competitive football — and returned it to the Valparaiso 25-yard line, setting up a two-play touchdown drive for Dartmouth that extended the lead to 28-18. Valparaiso never challenged Dartmouth’s lead again.

“It was fantastic,” Mackie said. “I just got to thank my team. [Cross] and [White] put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, forced a bad throw. I had guys get out in front of me, they were able to block, so it was truly a blessing.”

Dartmouth moved to 1-0 on the season after the win, but players emphasized cleaning up the moments of sloppiness shown throughout the game, as inexperienced players got acclimated to college football and returning players worked off the rust, as the key takeaway for the upcoming week of practice.

“We were all a little frustrated at the time but after the fact, looking back, for like half these guys, they've never even traveled before or gone to a game, most of them have never started,” Kyler said. “And so we just took a step back and said it's been a while, a win's a win, so we’re going to fix up what we can and move on to the next week.”

The Big Green will next play on Saturday in its home opener against Sacred Heart University, who boast a 2-1 record entering the matchup.

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