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University of Dubuque’s Kordell Stillmunkes runs the ball during Saturday’s football game against Buena Vista at Chalmers Field. The Spartans defeated the Beavers, 26-12.

After a 1-3 start to the season, the University of Dubuque football team had two choices: fold or make the most of the remaining games.

Six weeks later, the Spartans’ play hardly resembles what they put on the field through the first four weeks, putting a positive spin on what could’ve been a lost season for Dubuque.

Freshman running back Kordell Stillmunkes rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns and the UD defense posted a second-half shutout on their way to a 26-12 win over Buena Vista on Saturday at Chalmers Field — the fifth straight victory for the Spartans.

“We had a lot of new starters on this team and we didn’t really know who we are, what our identity was,” said Stillmunkes, a Cuba City, Wis., native who walked on at Iowa last year before transferring to Dubuque this season. “We found that throughout the season and we’re on a roll. It’s a lot of fun.”

It was a wild day in the American Rivers Conference as Central upset No. 7 Wartburg in overtime, 57-56, to take the top slot in the league title race with one week to go. The Knights handed the Spartans their last loss way back on Sept. 28. Since then, UD beat the Dutch on the road and improved to 5-2 in conference play after an 0-2 start within the league.

If Wartburg and Central both lose next week, a UD win would put the Spartans in a four-way tie atop the A-R-C standings with the Knights, Dutch and Coe at 6-2 in league play. Conference regulations state head-to-head play is the first tiebreaker criteria for the A-R-C’s automatic NCAA Division III playoff berth. After that, the team that has gone the longest without a playoff berth receives the bid. However, it remains unclear whether or not Dubuque is eliminated from contention as of right now with the Dutch holding the longest current playoff drought.

That won’t be sorted out until next week’s slate of games. Right now, for the Spartans, there’s more to this season than just their A-R-C title hopes. They are the hottest team in the conference right now and it definitely showed in the second half on Saturday.

“In the 11 years that we’ve been here, we’ve always finished great,” said UD coach Stan Zweifel. “We understand that the season isn’t just in the first four games. Our guys just hung in there and got the job done.”

The Spartans (7-3, 5-2 A-R-C) were admittedly flat to start the game with a pair of Beavers touchdown runs putting Buena Vista (3-7, 1-7) ahead, 12-6, through the first quarter. Dubuque struggled to put any sustainable drives together for most of the first half, but a Beavers punt gave the Spartans one final possession with 2:17 until halftime.

UD quarterback Sean Duffy was 4-for-5 on the ensuing drive, with a 44-yard pass to Emanuel Jenkins setting the Spartans up at the BV 22. Two plays later, Duffy found tight end Adam Rothas on a screen for a walk-in 12-yard touchdown, putting Dubuque up, 13-12, at the break.

“We played really flat to start the game,” said Zweifel. “We were able to hang in there and get into halftime with the lead, even though it was only a point. I thought that was instrumental in us being able to win the game.”

Out of halftime, Stillmunkes was visibly fired up when he took the field. In the Spartans’ second drive of the third quarter, he ran for 69 yards on seven carries, capping a 10-play, 82-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run for a 20-12 UD lead.

“Coming off the bye week, I just felt really good today. A lot of energy,” said Stillmunkes, who had 122 rushing yards in the second half and averaged 8.1 yards per carry. “I just felt unstoppable today.”

Stillmunkes saw a heavy workload on UD’s next drive which spanned into the fourth quarter. He carried the ball four straight times, with his 22-yard gash pushing the Spartans into the Beavers’ red zone at the 17. Duffy connected with Elliott Pipkin for a touchdown on the next play, and UD had a 26-12 lead with just over 12 minutes remaining.

The Spartan defense took over from there. They forced Buena Vista into a turnover on downs at the UD 6 and had a three-and-out on the Beavers’ following possession. Dubuque’s offense killed nearly 7 minutes of clock over its final two drives to seal the win.

Duffy was 13 of 21 for 168 yards and two touchdowns against one interception. Jenkins finished with five catches for 70 yards and Chad Marsh led the Spartan defense with 10 tackles and a sack.

Dubuque wraps up the regular season at Nebraska Wesleyan (3-6, 1-6) next week.

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