Before the 2015 season, Ashland University head coach Lee Owens was excited to see what sophomore cornerback Dale Irby could do on kickoff returns.
It's safe to say the excitement still is there.
Irby returned four kickoffs for 135 yards in the Eagles' 56-22 season-opening win on Thursday night (Sept. 3) at Lake Erie. He came up 39 yards short of the program's single-game record of 174 yards by Carlin Isles in 2008, and Irby's total was the team's most in a game since current AU wide receiver coach Joe Horn's 153 yards at home against the Storm in 2010.
Young Eagle Receiving Corps Steps Up
One of the questions about Ashland University's football team in the preseason was who would step up at wide receiver in 2015.
In the season-opener, the answer was many of them.
A position group which returned just nine catches from 2014 (all by senior Drew Brenner) ended Game 1 with 14 catches for 254 yards and three touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Matthew Wilcox led the way with three catches for 117 yards and a score – the Eagles' first 100-plus-yard receiving game by someone other than Dan Piko since Oct. 26, 2013.
"Both our youngsters played well," Owens said. "I thought (junior Jamie) Hence and Wilcox played really good. I think both our transfers (sophomores Stewart Turner and Terrance Burt) played well. It was exciting to see them execute the way they did, and plus, we've got a guy behind center that, he just makes such great decisions with the ball and he delivers it on time."
That guy, sophomore quarterback Travis Tarnowski, threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns against the Storm in the opener. In two career games against Lake Erie, Tarnowski is 35-for-57 for 642 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
First-Team "D" Sets The Tone
In less than three quarters of play, AU's first-team defense allowed just seven points. While that touchdown was an 89-yard run by Lake Erie All-American senior tailback Anthony Bilal, the starting Eagle "D" looked like the unit that paced the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in opponents' scoring in 2014.
"When you look at Anthony Bilal, he's a first-team All-American tailback," Owens said. "We won't play any tailbacks any better than that. Sooner or later, that guy's going to score on you.
"I thought we ran well with the ones. For the most part, we had him bottled up. I thought, for the most part, it was a pretty good defensive effort. We've really felt that we've got some range and quickness on defense that we haven't had for a while, particularly in the back end."
The final numbers saw Ashland's defense record five sacks, eight tackles for loss and two takeaways.
Thursday's win was Owens' 80th at Ashland and his 120th as a college head coach…It also was the Eagle football program's 460th all-time victory…Senior defensive tackle Tim Lehr nearly matched his career sack total prior to 2015 (three) in the opener on Thursday night (2½)…Senior tailback Michael Taylor recorded his first collegiate 100-yard rushing game (115 yards, one touchdown on nine carries).