By Graham Couch
RICHLAND — Sturgis’ turnaround since an opening-week shellacking can be attributed to buy-in.
The buy-in Friday night was perhaps best illustrated by junior Zach Matthews.
He simply would not give up the football after recovering a critical fumble on a muffed punt in the Trojans’ 28-21 win at Gull Lake. Not even to the referee.
“The ref asked for the ball three times and he didn’t want to,” senior quarterback Chance Stewart said of Matthews.
“I just saw the ball outside and had to have it,” Matthews said. “My teammate almost had it, but I took it from him.”
On the 1-yard line, no less, setting up a Stewart touchdown for a 21-7 lead late in the second quarter of this Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference crossover.
This is Sturgis’ formula for victory for now — come up with turnovers, big stops and special teams scores, until its offense finds a consistent punch.
See box score here.
A week ago, in a much-needed win at Niles, the Trojans (2-1) let a fumble get away. So this week became about seizing those opportunities.
“We’ve been working on grabbing it, securing it, bringing it into our belly,” Lamb said.
Matthews’ belly secured recovery was one of three Gull Lake (0-3) fumbles Sturgis corralled Friday — along with two interceptions, two fourth-down stops in the red zone, one of them on the goal line, and a punt return for a touchdown.
The Trojans needed every one of those turn of events to counter an otherwise statistical whipping.
Gull Lake put up 445 yards, 328 on the ground, to Sturgis’ 170 total yards. The Trojans didn’t secure the win until a final onside kick bounced out of bounds, just out of the reach of the Blue Devil’s Odell Miller.
“If that kick is a little bit slower, (Miller) comes up with that, and that’s their ball,” Sturgis coach Jimmy Lamb said. “Sometimes the ball bounces (right) and tonight it bounced in our corner.”
But the Trojans made their luck, too.
Beyond the muffed punt, these were mostly forced fumbles and in-the-right-place interceptions.
Junior Jacob Cline had both INTs. His first pick, against Gull Lake starting QB Ryan Mutchler, gave Sturgis the ball 15 yards from the end zone and set up a 1-yard run by Stewart for a 14-0 lead.
The Trojans had opened the scoring with a five-play, 58-yard drive on their first possession, finished with J.D. Bowdish’s 7-yard run.
The second quarter, though, is where Sturgis gained separation with two moments — Matthews’ recovery and a fourth-down stand at the 1-yard line seconds before halftime to preserve a 21-7 advantage.
Having been unable to get a handle on Mutchler the entire half, senior linebacker Matthew Phillips absolutely crushed the Gull Lake QB on a keeper play up the middle, before Mutchler could even reach the line of scrimmage.
“Obviously we knew it was coming,” said Phillips, who finished with seven tackles and 70 yards rushing. “The D-tackles blew their gaps up and really that’s on them. Just came in and made the play.”
Sturgis wasn’t finished demoralizing its opponent.
Midway through the third quarter, Kalvyn Bowdish took a punt 63 yards to the end zone, right through the heart of Gull Lake’s punt unit, for a 28-7 lead.
“Once I caught it, I knew I was going to score,” Kalvyn Bowdish said, after also finishing with seven catches for 43 yards, bouncing back from a couple of early drops. “I could see the middle of the field wide open. Guys did a great job blocking, giving me a wide-open lane to run through.”
Stewart threw for a modest 74 yards, completing 11 of 20 passes, the future Western Michigan University quarterback playing in front of a former WMU QB star, Gull Lake coach Tim Hiller.
“We got a couple breaks, but the offense has got to find a way to put some points on the scoreboard,” Stewart said.
Stewart’s counterpart, Mutchler, did all of his work on the ground, finishing 207 yards on 25 rushes, before leaving the game “dizzy,” Hiller said.
Tyler Vandermolen tried to lead Gull Lake back through the air, passing for 117 yards in limited time.
Ultimately, the Blue Devils couldn’t overcome a Sturgis squad suddenly believing their six-win goal is attainable, the 55-0 loss to Portage Central a more distant memory with each passing week.
“A lot’s changed,” Kalvyn Bowdish said. “We’ve starting coming and playing together as a team, and that’s a really big part of it.”