Down by nine points with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, after already committing two crucial turnovers earlier in the frame, the odds of the Wheaton Thunder football team coming back against the No. 12 Illinois Wesleyan Titans last Saturday night, Oct. 20, were slim to none.
But Wheaton rallied and scored two touchdowns in their final two possessions of regulation play, shocking the Titans 38-33. The win came on the heels of a 35-30 road loss at Elmhurst on Oct. 13, and now puts Wheaton’s record at 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the CCIW.
The team arguably should not be in this position given the situation they were facing on Saturday at McCully Stadium. Illinois Wesleyan had built a 33-24 fourth-quarter lead and had their offense on the field with just under seven minutes to go.
Twice before in the quarter, the Thunder possessed the ball deep in Titan territory, but they were unable to put points on the board. But, as many comebacks are sparked, the Thunder defense forced a turnover. Titan quarterback Rob Galick attempted a pass on third-and-seven that would sustain a potential game-clinching drive, but Wheaton senior cornerback Matt McReynolds picked off the pass, bringing it down deep in Wesleyan territory, giving the home team another chance.
The offense, starting at the Titan 28-yard line, needed only two plays to find pay dirt. On second and five from the 23, senior quarterback Jordan Roberts found sophomore wide out Mark Hiben for a touchdown strike that brought Wheaton within two points of Illinois Wesleyan, 33-31. The drive took 32 seconds, and the score was Hiben’s second of the contest.
After the resurgent Wheaton defense forced the Titans to punt on the ensuing possession, Roberts and the offense took the ball again, starting at their own 40-yard line with 3:10 on the clock.
The Thunder would have to turn two clutch third-down conversions on this drive before having a chance to score, and they came through on them both.
First it was junior receiver David Washko who snared a Roberts pass for a 17-yard gain on third-and-seven, taking the ball into Titan territory. Two plays later, junior tailback Charlie Velling smashed his way for a two-yard pick up on third-and-one to keep Wheaton’s comeback drive going. Roberts found senior receiver Morgan Cook the following play for seven yards, putting the ball on Wesleyan’s 21-yard-line.
Sitting at the edge of field goal range with just a minute-and-a-half to play, the Thunder hoped to put the ball in the end zone rather than settling for a lengthy field goal attempt. Wheaton wanted a touchdown, and a touchdown they got.
Facing second down and three, Roberts called for another pass play. Hiben was split wide to the left, and, as one of the nation’s premier pass-catchers, he was commanding a lot of attention from the Titan secondary. But no matter how many different looks the opponent could throw, the duo of Roberts and Hiben would not be denied their third scoring hook up of the night. Roberts took the snap out of shotgun, faked a handoff and stepped back to survey his options.
The Titans dropped seven defenders into zone pass coverage, and Hiben ran his post route right into the middle of it. Roberts delivered the pass over the middle toward the goal line to a spot where it appeared three white jerseys were all converging. Then Hiben slid behind the leaping linebacker and diving cornerback and just in front of the lunging safety to snatch the pass at the five-yard line. His momentum carried him into the end zone, capping off the play of the game, and with the point after gave Wheaton a 38-33 lead with 1:17 left.
The defense held strong on the final drive by Illinois Wesleyan, with senior safety Garrett Cook intercepting a long pass to seal the victory. The touchdown catch by Hiben was nominated d3football.com Play of the Week and gave him nine total touchdowns on the year, the second highest total in the conference this year.
The Thunder were outscored 7-3 in the first quarter and 20-14 in the second quarter to trail at the half 27-17. After three they still trailed 33-24 before mounting the consecutive scoring drives in the final five minutes. Roberts finished the day 25-of-39 passing for a whopping 360 yards, a pick, and four touchdowns, increasing his conference-best total to 20. Velling led the team in rushing with 16 carries for 58 yards and a score, while the Thunder offense edged out the Titans in total yards for the contest, gaining 463 yards to Wesleyan’s 452.
Up next, the Thunder welcome a vastly improved Millikin University team to McCully Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 27. The Big Blue are still looking for their first conference win of the year but have fought each opponent hard including two overtime losses, one to Illinois Wesleyan to open the year and one last weekend to Elmhurst, who defeated the Thunder two weeks ago.
Kickoff at McCully Stadium is set for 1 p.m. Play-by-play action can be heard on 88.1fm WETN or online at wetn.org or on campus television WETN Channel 4.
File Photo Credit: Allison Freet
Printed in the October 26, 2012, issue of The Wheaton Record. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.