Fort Lewis College resembled a team that hadn’t played a live football game in nearly 500 days. Dixie State looked every bit like a Division I program with four games under its belt already this spring.
The Skyhawks had the tough task of going on the road to face the Trail Blazers on Saturday night in front of a packed crowd at the Greater Zion Stadium in St. George, Utah. It was the first of a three-game spring schedule for FLC after the 2020 fall season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, Dixie State, a former fellow NCAA Division II Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference foe of the Skyhawks, was in its fifth and final game in its debut season at the NCAA D-I Football Championships Subdivision level.
Dixie State pulled no punches in the first half, as it built up a 44-0 lead behind plenty of big plays and stifling defense. The end result would be a 60-0 loss for the Skyhawks in their first game under head coach Darrius G. Smith, who was hired in the winter of 2020 and had limited practices before the pandemic hit and altered the team’s preparation for a full year.
“That was a game against a rising Division I FCS team against a Division II program,” Smith said in a FLC athletics news release. “I thought the kids played hard, but you could tell there was a lot of rust on our side. And you could tell they were a team that had played four other games before us. They were a well-oiled machine going against a team still getting its feet wet.”
The Skyhawks started transfer quarterback Armon “Bubba” Hickson, who went 6-of-25 passing for 29 yards. He was sacked four times, fumbled three times and lost two of them. Connor Apodaca would play the fourth quarter at QB and go 2-of-5 passing for nine yards. He was sacked once.
The bright spot on offense was Emmanuel Nwosu, as he rushed 14 times for 69 yards. He had FLC’s best offensive play of the game on a 14-yard run.
“I’m very pleased with how he ran the ball,” Smith said. “He became a little of a comfort for me calling plays. We didn’t know who would be the true starter in the running back core, so for him to step up like he did was truly tremendous. We just have to make sure we can support him and play in all three facets of the game around a performance like that.”
FLC had only 27 yards of offense on 40 plays in the first half. That number finished at 120 yards on 73 plays. Meanwhile, Dixie State totaled 436 yards of offense in the game.
Dixie State quarterback Kody Wilstead went 17-of-23 passing for 282 yards and five touchdowns. He hit Deven Osborne for seven completions, 147 yards and two touchdowns, including a 40-yard TD strike in the first quarter and a 38-yard score in the final minute of the first half.
Dixie State (2-3) led 10-0 after Quali Conley broke a 39-yard touchdown run with 5:09 to go in the first quarter. Conley finished with 73 rushing yards on 10 carries.
It would be 16-0 in a flash when Isaac Fotu recovered an FLC fumble in the Skyhawks’ end zone for a touchdown. Then, Wilstead went to work hammering the Skyhawks through the air.
Fort Lewis mounted a positive 11-play drive in the middle of the third quarter, with Hickson slightly overthrowing Jaelin Hood, who was open in the end zone one play after spinning through the Dixie State defense for a 12-yard gain to the Dixie State 4-yard line.
But Hickson would be pressured off the edge and flushed out of the pocket to his right and hit as he threw, resulting in an interception for Dixie State’s Dylan Hendrickson. The Skyhawks never flirted with the end zone again.
James Baird would make four field goals in four tries for the home team. He made three in the fourth quarter, including kicks of 41 and 50 yards.
FLC would lose Dakota Helms to a knee injury with six minutes to play in the fourth quarter. His twin brother, Jayden Helms, led FLC with seven tackles. Duane Jones Jr. had five tackles, as did Vincent DeLeo. Oscar Oliva had FLC’s only sack of the night.
The Skyhawks will look to shake it off with three weeks to prepare for an RMAC opponent in Western Colorado. The two teams will meet at 2 p.m. April 17 at Ray Dennison Memorial Field in Durango.
“The thing that was encouraging, and it won’t look like it from the scoreboard, the kids stayed in the fight the whole time,” Smith said. “Now, we just need to eliminate the big plays and play more consistent on offense and defense. We have some time to prepare, and we need to take advantage of our practice opportunities. What I told the team was, ‘This game was a hard lesson real fast.’ I commend Dixie State on how it played and how they are fastening their program. That’s the level I think Fort Lewis can get to if we stay committed to the goal.”