The College of Wooster football team's defense made waves with four takeaways, and the Fighting Scots' offense capitalized on numerous short-field opportunities while building the lead, prior to the Black & Gold warding off a late surge by host Bluffton University on Saturday afternoon at Alumni Field in Bluffton, Ohio.
Wooster's (1-0) defense set the tone early and had Bluffton (0-1) reeling for most of the first quarter in the teams' season lid-lifter. In fact, three of the Beavers' first four offensive series ended with negative yardage, and Bluffton's lone drive that didn't resulted in 4 yards and a three-and-out.
Senior Marcus Bowers recovered a fumble on a bad snap by Bluffton's center on the second series' second play, and that set up an experienced offense – but one with a first-time collegiate starter at quarterback – on the Beavers' 29-yard line. Eight plays later, a settled-in Caden Croft lofted a pass up to junior Nick Strausbaugh from 7 yards out, and the sure-handed wideout's balancing act to stay in bounds resulted in the Scots' first score of the season at the 8:25 mark.
Two Bluffton drives later, junior Robert Alvarez scooped up the pigskin on a second first-quarter Beaver fumble, and found pay dirt after a 33-yard runback for what marked Wooster's first touchdown on a fumble return coming on an opponent's rushing play since Jeff Geffert had one at Case Western Reserve University during the 2007 season.
Wooster needed two drives to answer Bluffton's first score of the game, and Croft connected with junior Jacob Lewis from 17 yards out, prior to sophomore Henry Whyte knocking through the extra point to make it 21-7 with 10:49 to go in the opening half.
The Scots again pulled back ahead by two scores (28-14) in the closing minute of the opening half on a 3-yard run by senior Antonio Bailey with :51 left that capped a 13-play, 68-yard drive.
The third quarter belonged to Wooster, which tacked on 16 points to open a 44-14 lead.
First, Bailey broke a few tackles and sprung free from the Beavers' defense for a 46-yard touchdown run at the 8:55 mark that made it 34-14.
Next, with a brief rain shower passing through, Bluffton had trouble on its punt snap on the ensuing drive, and freshmen Eric Kraus and Angelo Petracci were there in the Beavers' backfield to finish off a 15-yard loss, setting up the offense in the red zone in the process.
Sophomore Seth Burke took charge from there working the ball down to the 2-yard line before Croft darted in for his first collegiate rushing touchdown.
Wooster's fourth takeaway of the game followed three plays later, with this one coming in the form of a strip sack that was recovered by junior Nick Barto-Brown at Bluffton's 15-yard line. However, Wooster had to settle for a 27-yard Whyte field goal that closed out Wooster's scoring on the day.
Bluffton made things interesting with a 20-point fourth quarter, and was on the verge of pulling within eight with 2:46 remaining. Sophomore Cam Pollard had a beat on the two-point conversion, and while he doesn't get defensive statistical credit for the pick, the multi-positional star checked off that box earlier in the game with a second-quarter interception.
Bailey surpassed the century mark on the ground to lead the offense. The senior turned 21 totes into 124 stripes and a pair of scores. Croft finished 23-of-33 for 202 yards, and had two passing touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.
Overall, Wooster had five sacks on the afternoon, held Bluffton to 34 yards rushing on 34 carries, and kept the Beavers in check on third down (3-for-15).
Plummie Gardner tossed five touchdowns as part of a 16-for-29 afternoon that included 298 passing yards, 136 of which were logged by Lucas Espitia, who had three touchdowns.
Noteworthy, Wooster's now won its opener in back-to-back years for the first time since winning five consecutive lid-lifters from 2002-06, and the game marked the first win in a season-opener on the road since 2005.
Next, Wooster opens North Coast Athletic Conference play against Allegheny College (0-1) on Saturday, Sept. 8. Kickoff from John P. Papp Stadium is set for 1 p.m.