Wooster Pulls Away From Bluffton in Season-Opener 45-21 Behind Strong Second Half, Quartet of Late Takeaways

WOOSTER, Ohio – Sophomore Nick Strausbaugh made a spectacular catch and broke free from Bluffton University's defense for a 56-yard touchdown to put The College of Wooster football team up two scores, and the Fighting Scots defense clamped down from there with a fourth-down stop and three takeaways – including one returned for a touchdown – as the Black & Gold topped the Beavers 45-21 in the teams' season-opener on Saturday afternoon at John P. Papp Stadium.

Clinging to a 24-21 lead late in the third quarter, senior Patrick Johnson came up with the first of Wooster's (1-0) four second-half interceptions in the end zone, and darted out to the Scots' 26-yard line. Four plays later, senior Gary Muntean found Strausbaugh down the sideline, and that made it 31-21 with :24 left in the third quarter.

Next, Bluffton (0-1) again drove the ball deep into Wooster territory, but sophomore Christian Santos snuffed out a fourth-down sweep and drove Bluffton's key playmaker Micah Robinson back for a loss of seven yards on a fourth-and-1 play from Wooster's 29-yard line.

Senior Patrick Johnson looks to make a move upfield during one of his two interception returns during Saturday's 45-21 win over Bluffton.
Senior Patrick Johnson looks to make a move upfield during one of his two interception returns during Saturday's 45-21 win over Bluffton.

On Bluffton's next possession, senior quarterback Colby Speice tested Wooster's secondary with a deep throw on a first-and-10 play from the Scots' 37-yard line, but the throw was right to the waiting hands of Johnson, who hauled in his second interception at Wooster's 11-yard line and returned this one 25 yards. At the other end of the field, junior Antonio Bailey capped a 6-play, 64-yard drive with a 3-yard burst to make it 38-21 with 4:51 to go.

Wooster's hungry defense wasn't done though as two plays into the next series, Speice's pass found its way to sophomore Jake Cohen, who navigated his way through a swarm of Beavers for a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown to put the game out of reach at 45-21 with 4:08 to go in the game. Notable, the touchdown marked the first interception return for a score by Wooster since the 2013 season.

On Bluffton's last drive, sophomore Robert Alvarez penetrated into the backfield and tipped a Speice pass that would be gathered in by junior Hunter Coia for Wooster's fourth interception of the day, and thwart any chance of a possible comeback.

Switching to the offense, Wooster jumped out to a 3-0 lead thanks to a 26-yard field goal by Trevor Bowden to cap a 10-play, 58-yard drive to open the season.

At the end of the first quarter, a Muntean-to-Jacob Lewis 22-yard connection made it a 10-0 game with :04 remaining in the stanza. In the second quarter, Muntean spun away from heavy pressure and found a wide-open Lewis for the sophomore's second touchdown of the day - this time a 6-yard strike - which at the time made it 17-7 with 5:40 to go in the half.

Bluffton answered with a 9-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 38-yard pass from Speice to Lucas Espitia for a score, and the Beavers converted a two-point rush to pull within two at 17-15 before halftime. In fact, Bluffton took the lead to start the third quarter when Speice threw a 38-yard strike to Keyon Camden.

Bailey led the way offensively for the Scots with 106 yards rushing – eight shy of equaling his career-high – on 21 totes with the score. Muntean, who scampered in from two yards out with 4:22 to go in the third quarter to give Wooster the lead for good, was equally as impressive on the ground with a career-high 89 yards on 18 carries. The senior signal-caller threw for 271 yards and three scores, while going 17-for-29 with an interception through the air.

In the receiving department, Bailey continued to thrive as the go-to check-down with five catches for 37 yards, while Strausbaugh had three catches for 79 stripes, and junior Connor Allan knifed his way through Bluffton's defense for 70 yards on a pair of receptions.

Defensively, Wooster's aggressive, youthful look led the way in the tackle column with Santos (10), first-years Christian Dokes (8), Danté Fair (8), and Beau Greenwood (7) and Cohen (7) leading the way. Wooster's defense featured three first-years as starters in Dokes, Fair, and Twyan Reynolds.

Shifting back to the interceptions, Saturday's game marked Wooster's first four-interception game since the Scots picked off Kenyon College four times on Nov. 9, 2013. Additionally, the Scots are off to a much better start in the takeaway department this season as Wooster didn't record its fourth interception of the year last year until the eighth game of the season.

Speice paced Bluffton with 328 yards passing, going 29-for-45 with 12 of the completions going to Roberson who turned those into 120 yards. Defensively, Doniven Clark led the way with 10 tackles, while Isaac Zickafoose added a pair of sacks.

Next, Wooster opens North Coast Athletic Conference play against Allegheny College (1-0) on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 5 p.m.