A truly bizarre football game unfolded under the lights at Ohio Dominican University Saturday night, and the Hillsdale College football team wouldn't have it any other way.
Head coach Keith Otterbein won his 100th game leading the team he used to play for as Hillsdale defeated the 12th-ranked Panthers 34-18 in Columbus. The win makes Hillsdale 2-1 overall and 1-0 in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, while ODU suffered its first loss of the season.
Can there be a game where the defense surrenders 620 yards to the opposition and still plays a great game? Can there be a game where a quarterback throws three first-quarter interceptions and still wins by double digits on the road? Can there be a game where in one play, three points for one team turns into six for the other?
Yes, yes, yes!
Fiction writers could pen a game like this, and the script would get rejected due to its obvious implausibility. Hillsdale was coming off a gut-wrenching overtime loss at Michigan Tech, and was facing a second straight road game, against a nationally ranked team, a team it hadn't beaten since 2012. But credit the resiliency and character of the Charger players and coaching staff, as they gathered themselves and topped a ranked opponent for the first time since the 2016 season opener.
Senior quarterback Chance Stewart had a nightmarish start, throwing three first-quarter interceptions, a sequence that is typically fatal to any team's chances in any game. But Stewart refocused and played brilliantly over the game's final three quarters, making great throws, especially deep, that engineered the Charger offense in a big way.
Complementing Stewart was the timely play of the Charger defense, who intercepted five passes and forced six turnovers in all to not only survive that rough early start, but put a nail in the victory in the fourth quarter.
A good early sign was that despite those three early picks, the Chargers only trailed by three at the end of the first quarter. ODU booted a 30-yard field goal off the first interception to take a 3-0 lead. Senior Wyatt Batdorff secured the first of his two interceptions on the night, stopping the next Panther drive.
Alex Anschutz, who also had two interceptions on the night, got his first on the final play of the first quarter. Seizing upon the momentum, Hillsdale took the lead for good three plays into the second quarter when junior tailback David Graham scored from five yards out to make it a 7-3 Charger lead. Stewart rediscovered his rhythm on the first two plays of that drive, connecting on passes of 15 and 17 yards to Konnor Maloney and Trey Brock, respectively.
Jason McDonough got in on the turnover fun, recovering a fumble at the Hillsdale 40-yard line, setting up Hillsdale's second touchdown of the game. Stewart flipped a pass to tight end Drew Zwiers from four yards out, and suddenly, Hillsdale led 14-3.
The Panthers marched right down the field and scored on their first drive of the second half, slicing the lead to 14-10. But the Chargers pulled away, scoring the game's next 20 consecutive points, thanks to some brilliant play calling and precise execution by the offense.
Brock, the program's No. 2 all-time leading receiver, showed he's got a rather nice throwing arm as well. He threw a 46-yard laser to Maloney that set up Graham's second touchdown of the game, putting Hillsdale on top 20-10 with 7:33 left in the third quarter.
And as much as that play was highlight reel material, it wasn't the craziest the Chargers would pull off. More on that in a bit.
Batdorff's second interception of the game came in Hillsdale's end zone, stopping a big scoring threat by the Panthers. On the very next play, Stewart fired an 80-yard touchdown bomb to senior Austin Sandusky, making it a 27-10 Hillsdale lead. It was a perfect example of a great play call, great execution, and keeping momentum going on your side.
But Hillsdale's final score of the game might have been its most memorable. Freshman defensive back Matt Harding blocked a field goal attempt and returned the ball 80 yards for a score less than two minutes into the fourth quarter. Harding would later sew up the win with an interception, also in the end zone, on ODU's final drive of the game.
Stewart was 15-for-23 passing for 261 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Graham ran the ball 18 times for 71 yards and also scored twice. Sandusky led the team's receivers with four catches for a career-high 143 yards and a touchdown, while Maloney hauled in four passes for 90 yards.
In addition to it being Otterbein's 100th win as Chargers' head coach, this game was historic for a number of other reasons. Stewart became the third quarterback in school history to throw for more than 7,000 yards in a career. It was Hillsdale's first win over a nationally ranked opponent since it beat 16th-ranked University of Indianapolis on Sept. 3, 2016. It was the Chargers' first win over the Panthers since Sept. 8, 2012, ending a four-game losing streak in the series.
Senior linebacker Jay Rose was in on 14 total tackles to lead the defense. Junior Merrick Canada set a single-game career-high with 11 total tackles, while Zach VanValkenburg also established a career high in total tackles with 10. Canada and VanValkenburg each picked up sacks while Batdorff broke up two passes while intercepting two and making eight total tackles.