VALPARAISO | Injuries and inexperience looked to be the storyline for the Valparaiso football team on Saturday afternoon.
Instead, the Crusaders played their most spirited conference game of the year before ultimately falling short 35-21 to Drake at Brown Field.
Missing five key offensive starters, including quarterback Eric Hoffman and running back Gabe Ali-El, the Crusaders were still in the game late in the second half against one of the best the Pioneer Football League has to offer.
“Obviously the score is not acceptable,” Valparaiso head coach Dale Carlson said. “What we told the kids all week was that we needed to focus on one play at a time. We did better at that. We did better than we did in the last two weeks.”
The Crusaders (0-6, 0-3) were clearly better on Saturday than they were last year when they traveled to Drake and took a 50-0 loss on the chin. Backup quarterback Ben Lehman earned the start in place of Hoffman and started sharp, hitting nine of his first 11 passes, including a 24-yard scoring strike to Eric Slenk at the end of the first quarter.
Lehman made a costly mistake earlier in the first quarter when he under-threw Slenk at the three-yard line and the ball was intercepted by Drake defensive back Jake Underwood.
“I thought he still kept playing after (the interception),” Carlson said. “He knew he was late on the throw. That’s a young quarterback who thinks he can zip everything in there.”
Lehman’s performance took a turn for the worse midway through the second quarter as the redshirt freshman completed just two of his last 15 passes before giving way to reserve Quinn Schafer. The Fort Wayne native threw for 78 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown pass to Slenk late in the fourth quarter.
With so many injuries, the Crusaders were getting contributions from plenty of inexperienced players. Jake Hutson shined last week with two touchdowns against Butler after Ali-El was lost with a foot injury and the redshirt freshman was back at it again on Saturday, running for a career-high 98 yards. Valparaiso finished the game with a season-high 162 rushing yards.
“We went into the game thinking that we’d have some opportunities to run the ball against Drake,” Carlson said.
Saturday’s game represented a homecoming for Drake redshirt freshman Adam Peterka. The Valparaiso High star had yet to play in a college football game, but made good on a promise he made to himself and got on the field for the Bulldogs (5-2, 4-0) in his hometown.
“I haven’t been a travel player, but I told myself that I was going to travel to at least one game this year and it was going to be Valpo,” Peterka said. “It was strange getting into town yesterday and not really being able to go home, but it was nice to have family and friends here.”
Peterka made his college debut in Drake’s final defensive series of the game. Though he didn’t record a tackle, Saturday was still a success for the 2011 Valpo graduate.
“Now that I got a taste of playing, I want a whole lot more,” Peterka said.