BLUFFTON — It was a rainy, dreary first half and the fans were anxious for something to get excited about.
Bluffton University tight end Lucas Espitia gave it to them.
Espitia made a one-handed TD catch in the left corner of the end zone to help spark the Beavers to a 16-6 victory over Mount St. Joseph on Saturday at Salzman Stadium.
Bluffton stands 3-0 for the first time since 1999. Mount St. Joseph is 0-3. It was the opening game for both teams in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.
It was also Bluffton’s first win over Mount St. Joseph since 2012.
“It’s huge,” Bluffton strong safety Trent Long (Elida) said. “Bluffton hasn’t had a whole lot of respect, but the last four, five years we’ve started to gain more respect. Personally, we knew, but now other people are starting to find out.”
Added Bluffton coach Denny Dorrel, “We have big goals, but this was a huge one for us. This was a team picked ahead of us in the conference and that we haven’t beat since I’ve been here.”
Espitia’s 6-yard TD reception from quarterback Conner Sheehan gave Bluffton a 13-0 lead with 4:34 left before halftime.
Espitia, who lined up on the left side, faked an inside move, then headed toward the end zone flag.
The pass was just out in front of him, but he grabbed it with one hand before pulling it in close to his body.
“I didn’t think I was going to get it, but I trust my hands,” Espitia said. “We practice things like that and coach (Bryan) Moore has us work on all kind of scenarios.”
Espitia finished with three catches for 24 yards with the TD.
“I thought the crowd would be flat because of the weather and we were going to have to create our own emotion,” Dorrel said. “I don’t think we did that very well in the first quarter. A play like that sparked us and then we rolled off a couple of touchdowns quick. And our defense played consistent all game.”
After a scoreless first quarter in the rain, the Bluffton running game began churning yards.
“If we’re running the ball well, it opens it up for our receivers to make plays,” Espitia said.
Bluffton running back Dante Carroll finished with 62 yards on 19 carries with one TD. Sheehan had 50 yards on 14 carries.
Sheehan’s favorite target, by way of plenty of screens and shovel passes, was Bluffton’s all-time reception leader Micah Roberson (Ada). He had 11 receptions for 87 yards.
Roberson broke the school career mark for receptions last week, breaking Eric Metz’s mark of 163 career catches.
Roberson has 25 catches this season and a record 180 for his career.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Roberson said of the record. “But I didn’t even know about it. I had no idea until one of my friends congratulated me on it. The offense is fun to be a part of it. It’s fun to get the ball in different ways.
“When the running started happening today, it opened up our passing, which opened up everything.”
Bluffton made it 6-0 on Carroll’s 5-yard TD run on a sweep around the right side. That capped a 12-play, 70-yard drive with 10:38 left in the second quarter.
Espitia’s TD ended an 11-play 62-yard drive.
Mount St. Joseph was playing without its starting quarterback Quinn Farrell, who is out with shoulder injury.
Seeing most of the time in place of Farrell was 5-foot-10, 225-pound running back/quarterback Mike Williams. Williams started the first two games at running back, but did play quarterback last year.
Williams completed just 4 of 16 passes for 5 yards. He bulldozed his way for 63 yards rushing on 14 carries.
Williams’ 2-yard TD screen pass to Cory Hastings brought the Lions within 13-6 with 11:40 left in the third quarter.
But that was as close as Mount St. Joseph would get.
Leading 16-6, Bluffton punted with 1:05 left, but the Lions muffed the punt return and Bluffton’s Ronald Vargyas recovered at the Mount 20.
With the Lions out of timeouts, the game ended on a couple of kneel-down plays.
Bluffton’s defense held Mount St. Joseph to 151 total yards, with 127 of those coming on the ground. Bluffton sacked Mount quarterbacks four times, with Isaac Zickafoose getting two of those.
Linebackers Austin Hall and Jake Harmon (Crestview) paced the Beavers’ defense with nine tackles each.
“We were playing together, talking and doing our job,” Long said. “I personally believe we have the best D-line in our conference. As a coverage group, if we give them two, three seconds, they’re going to put pressure on the quarterback or get a sack.”