When both of Occidental’s starting quarterbacks went down with injuries last Saturday, Tom Stivers got his unlikely chance to lead the Tiger offense onto the turf at Jack Kemp Stadium. The senior led the Tigers to a hard-fought 34-32 victory over the University of Puget Sound, their first victory of the 2014 football season.
To account for the 94 degree temperature, kickoff was moved from 1 p.m. to 11 a.m. Students huddled around fans in the stands and misters provided the players on the field with cold air.
This year marks a change in the football program: for the first time in four years, Occidental’s head coach has returned for a second season. In his first season as head coach, Semones led the Tigers to a 5-4 record (4-3 SCIAC), a substantial improvement over the 2012 season’s 2-7 record (2-5 SCIAC).
“[Last year], once we came in and established how we do things, the kids bought in right away, and they saw that if we do it this way, we’re going to have success,” Semones said. “They believe in what we’re doing. Building on the success of last year, our mindset is, ‘we’re going to win all our games.’ ”
The team’s starting quarterbacks, Tommy Edwards (senior) and Bryan Scott (sophomore), who captured the starting sport after an elbow injury sidelined Edwards for the remainder of the season, performed well in their brief appearances on Saturday.
“They both can lead us to victory, so they’re both going to play,” Semones said before the game.
But nobody saw much of either quarterback for too long, as both left with injuries midway through the first half.
Enter Tom Stivers, who came off the bench and lit up the scoreboard, taking the Tigers to the end zone on his first drive. He was the Tigers’ leading passer and finished the game 14 of 15 for 155 yards and three touchdowns.
“[Coach Semones] told me to warm up, and I’ve been in this situation before, so I was a lot calmer this time,” Stivers said. “I knew just to relax, to trust my teammates, to trust my mechanics and just to play fast and not over-think things.”
Saturday’s game was not only Occidental’s season opener, but also the first college football game for several members of the class of 2018, including starting linebacker Marcus McDuffie.
“I had a lot of people doubting me, saying that I wouldn’t even play college football, so to be starting in the first game really means a lot,” McDuffie said.
He had six tackles in the game, including one tackle for a loss.
McDuffie and the defense thwarted Puget Sound in the first half, giving up only a single touchdown seconds before halftime.
With that touchdown, Puget Sound took the momentum into the locker room and back out onto the sweltering turf in the second half, scoring first and cutting Occidental’s lead to 14-13.
But Stivers and the Tiger offense fired back, tallying three touchdowns. One came when running back Kwame Do (junior), who totaled 108 yards on 26 carries, burst into the end zone on a five-yard run to widen the lead to 34-13 with 4:21 left in the game.
Though the game seemed all but over, a frantic Puget Sound recovered two onside kicks and scored three touchdowns — including two in the last 1:13 — to pull within two points.
The game came down to one last onside kick — which wide receiver and team captain Sam Stekol (senior) recovered.
“It was a little more…entertaining…than we hoped it to be,” Stekol said. “I’ve got to give the game ball to Tommy Stivers. He stepped up big and made some huge throws, and that’s all we could ask for.”
Coach Semones also expressed excitement about Stivers’ performance.
“Stivers stepped in — we call him T-Sizzle — T-Sizzle stepped in and man, what a game, I’m so proud of him,” Semones said. “It’s nice to know that we’ve got a guy who can come in and do it, now we’ve got three guys who can do it.”
In the end, the Tigers got their first win, Tom Stivers got the game ball and the fans finally got out of the heat.The squad will travel to Sherman, Texas next week to take on Austin Colleges.