On a night of plenty of offense, it was a defensive play that proved to be pivotal.
The Omaha Beef had been running on the Sioux City defense to the tune of 110 yards through three quarters, but it was defensive lineman Devin Groenhagen who came up with a big strip fumble to put a stop to that. Groenhagen stood up Omaha quarterback Anthony Iannotti as he tried to run for the goal line early in the fourth quarter and ripped the ball away.
The Bandits' Devon Bridges picked up the fumble and helped Sioux City win its season opener over the Beef 63-44 Saturday night at the Tyson Events Center in front of 3,381 fans.
"Coach always tells us to hustle to the ball and I saw him cut back and someone already had him wrapped up," Groenhagen said. "We needed a big play because we were pinned deep, stripped it. Bridges came up with the scoop and that was a huge play for us."
Sioux City would make the turnover count as a pair of Omaha penalties helped and Jeffrey Mack did the final nine yards of work on the ground to put Sioux City up 56-36 with 10:17 to play. The drive came after a significant stoppage of play to tend to an Omaha player that was injured during the fumble return.
"That (fumble) was the play of the night," Bandits Coach Erv Strohbeen said. "He came in that very play and stripped the ball out. Great play."
Omaha opened the second half with its third field goal from Benny Hanaphy to close within 35-29, but the Bandits put together a touchdown scoring drive that ended on a Drew Prohaska 2-yard run into the end zone.
That was just the beginning of a frantic next few minutes as a long kick return led to a pair of Calvin Phillips runs that covered 19 yards and another Beef TD to make it 42-36. However, the Bandits' Frederick Bruno answered with his own long kickoff return that set up a Dominique Carson 8-yard touchdown run to put the lead back at 13.
Groenhagen's big play came on the next series and turned momentum to the Bandits.
"It was a momentum stopper that is the whole game," Groenhagen said. "You have to stop momentum and that is what we did."
Sioux City's season got off to an electric start as Carson took the opening kickoff in the back of the end zone and raced 56 yards for the score the first time he touched the ball as a member of the team. He ended the game averaging 24 yards on five returns.
"We knew Carson could do that with the ball because he is an electric guy," said Strohbeen of Carson who added two rushing scores on the night. "We have a lot of playmakers on this team. ... Overall I am pretty happy with a 63-point performance."
Omaha wasted no time answering as they marched down the field in six plays to score on a 9-yard pass from Iannotti to Kayne Farquharson to make it 7-6 Bandits with the missed PAT.
From there it was all Bandits the rest of the quarter as Genuser threw his first two touchdowns with the team. His first came on a 4-yarder to Prohaska and the second was a perfectly thrown 37-yard strike to Jeremiah Oates. Mack would add a 2-yard TD run for Sioux City and Bruno got in from 10 yards out in the second quarter.
Genuser was solid in his first start going 11 of 17 for 131 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Bridges added a pair of sacks to go with his big fumble recovery.
The Bandits scored the first four times they touched the ball before the Beef finally got a stop late in the second quarter.
The Beef would find its offense in the final three minutes of the first half as Iannotti threw a 16-yard touchdown pass and ran one in from three yards out to trim the Bandits' lead to 35-26 at halftime.
Phillips finished with 70 yards on the ground and Iannotti threw for 156 yards and three scores.
"We have a lot to work on we really do," Strohbeen said. "But to put up 63 points and get that victory tonight. Big night and a big win over your rival, just a great feeling right now."
The Bandits are back home Saturday when they host Bismarck (N.D.) at 7:05 p.m.