LITTLE ROCK, ARK.–After trailing for three quarters in the NJCAA National Championship tonight, the Hutchinson Community College Blue Dragons scored three consecutive touchdowns to defeat the Snow College Badgers, 29-27.
Snow took a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter but did not score for the rest of the half. Meanwhile, Hutchinson used a balanced rushing and passing attack to bring the score to 14-10.
With 12:48 remaining in the fourth quarter, Hutchinson took its first lead at 22-21 and never gave it up.
Snow brought the score to 29-27 on a rushing touchdown by quarterback Gabe Sweeten, who replaced Garrison Beach after a knee injury. Hutchinson linebacker Tre Pinkney intercepted a pass with 1:03 left to play to deny the Badgers a last-minute scoring drive.
“It’s a pretty special feeling right now,” Hutchinson Coach Drew Dallas said after winning the first national championship in the program’s 89-year history. “We battled our tails off against a really, really good football team.”
“I thought our physicality, our effort, our execution, it was all there. We feel like we dominated the line of scrimmage. We just came up a bit short,” said Zac Erekson, Snow head coach.
The regular season and championship game were played in the spring after the National Junior College Athletic Association delayed the fall 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Badgers found and exploited weaknesses in the Blue Dragon defense early, scoring easily in two consecutive drives that included a 77-yard touchdown pass by Beach to Tejhaun Palmer.
The defense from Utah dominated early, too. Linebackers swarmed Blue Dragon ballcarriers, and linemen crowded the backfield to force two consecutive three-and-outs to begin the game.
Even special teams got in on the early onslaught against the Blue Dragons when Robert Fuentes launched himself into and de-helmeted a kickoff-returner. This aroused a loud and sustained reaction from hundreds of Badger fans, who travelled from Utah, other states and in town, in the case of Ceazar Warren’s family from Little Rock, to see the game.
After the big hit, the Blue Dragons, a team that had grown accustomed to overcoming early deficits in the 2021 regular season, drove deep into Snow’s red zone and got on the board with a field goal. The score was 14-3, Snow, with three minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Then, the Hutchinson defense forced a three-and-out of its own, showing a tenacious presence at the line of scrimmage in that stand and through the rest of the game.
In the ensuing drive, Hutchinson Coach Drew Dallas elected to go for the first down in a fourth-and-short situation. Snow made the stop to take back possession at the Hutchinson 32-yard line.
The Badgers failed to move the ball after the turnover on downs, and in the first play of the second quarter, Badger kicker Stockton Lund missed a 49-yard field goal. He would go on to miss two other field goals in the game and make three of three extra-point attempts.
Two offensive drives later, Beach once again targeted Palmer streaking down the right sideline. Both teams celebrated the result of the play, and the referees, without the aid of instant replay, were forced to make a controversial call.
Palmer had ripped the ball from the hands of defensive back Roterius Torrence as they fell to the ground, but the Blue Dragons were awarded possession on the 6-yard line.
A few plays later, running back Tye Edwards took a sweep handoff 68 yards for a touchdown.
The score remained 14-10 for the rest of the first half after drives that resulted in punts and another missed field goal by Snow.
Hutchinson had another chance to put points on the board near the end of the half but came up with nothing. On third down from the 31-yard line, defensive lineman Shad Pulsipher sacked quarterback Dylan Laible at the 38, and Hutchinson was forced to punt instead of attempting a field goal.
To begin the second half, the Badgers came out aggressive on offense. The Badgers used good starting field position to cross into Hutchinson territory quickly with a quick first down. Palmer hauled in a catch for a 20-yard gain on a comeback route. Snow seemed to be driving downhill.
Beach tucked the ball and ran up the middle for a first down into the red zone. But he did not get up after the play. He had suffered a dislocated kneecap, and he did not return.
“Garrison is the guy that makes things go,” Erekson said of how the injury impacted the offensive game plan.
The Badgers were still almost able to pound the ball into the end zone on the ground and complete the drive. When they got a first down at the 1-yard line, Gabe Sweeten, Beach’s replacement at quarterback, fumbled a snap, recovering it for a loss of five. Another running play got them back to the 2, but a false-start penalty sent the Badgers back again to the 7-yard line.
“Gabe is a good football player. We’ve got a lot of trust in him. That’s just a tough spot for him, and it’s a tough spot for our offense – a tough break,” the coach said.
On third-and-goal from the 7, Hutchinson sacked Sweeten, forcing a field goal that sailed right, and Snow came up empty handed as well as down a star player.
Just when Snow needed something to go right on defense, as Hutchinson marched down the field, cornerback Kieonte Scott nabbed an interception. He jumped in front of his receiver running a post route. This gave the Badger offense the ball at its own 40-yard line.
Sweeten found a rhythm then, picking apart the Blue Dragon defense with his arm and legs to quickly lead the offense deep into Hutchinson territory.
He first found receiver Hunter Larsen on a crossing route for a 27-yard pickup. Shortly after, Sweeten kept tucked the ball and bounced right to the outside and finished a run to the 10-yard line with a stiff-arm to the chin of the defender who eventually forced him out of bounds. Running back Mekhi Kimble carried the ball into the end zone to increase the Badger lead to 21-10.
But Hutchinson prevailed in its next drive, one that almost ended early on a third-and-long. Instead, a completed deep ball put the offense at the Snow 30-yard line. Despite physical play by the Snow defensive line and linebackers on the drive, a few plays later, running back Anwar Lewis took a sweep handoff 29 yards to the end zone, barely touched.
Snow still led, 21-16, after Hutchinson did not convert a two-point attempt after the touchdown. However, the Blue Dragons seemed to have gained confidence and momentum, evidenced by increasingly short possessions by the Snow offense and the opposite for Hutchinson.
Early in the fourth, Hutchinson took the ball from its own 11-yard line to the end zone in just five plays, capped off by a 3-yard touchdown by Lewis. The Blue Dragons took a 22-21 lead that they would never lose.
A sack ended Snow’s next offensive drive, a short one that resulted in a punt.
Hutchinson responded with a quick touchdown on a 45-yard drive, bolstering its lead to 29-21 on a 1-yard touchdown carried by Edwards with seven and a half minutes to play.
Right when the Badgers desperately needed points, Sweeten led the team on a quick drive that resulted in the backup quarterback trotting uncontested into the left corner of the end zone with 4:50 remaining. The team needed two points to tie, and Sweeten’s quick pass in the two-point conversion fell incomplete.
Snow’s defense mustered a stop to give the offense a last chance, trailing by two with a minute and a half left in the game. The Badgers started the final drive backed up inside their own 15-yard line.
The drive ended quickly on an interception near the sideline by Hutchinson linebacker Tre Pinkney, sealing the Blue Dragon victory.