There comes a time in every close football game that the team with the lead must choose how they are going to close it out: conservatively, trying to kill clock with running plays and avoiding turnovers, or going for broke and trying to end the game in one furious assault.
In Saturday’s game against the Michigan Tech Huskies, the Hillsdale College Chargers, typically known as a conservative team, chose to go for broke, up 30-28 with three minutes to play, and were rewarded with the winning touchdown in a 37-35 victory.
Facing a 1st-and-20 at their own 30-yard line after a holding penalty, and only up two late in the fourth quarter, the Chargers took a shot downfield. Junior wideout Andre Holmes beat his man deep and junior quarterback Troy Weatherford put the ball right in his hands for a 53-yard reception that changed the momentum of the game.
Four plays later tailback Vinnie Panizzi burst through the line on a 15-yard run to give Hillsdale the winning margin.
“We’ve gotten burned in the past on those late drives with the lead by playing conservative and going 3-and-out,” said Hillsdale head coach Keith Otterbein. “This season we have three receivers we trust to make plays in those situations and a QB who can get it to them, so we knew (that being aggressive) was the right call.”
The deep pass capped a stellar day for Troy Weatherhead, who started the game 11-for-11 passing and finished 24-for-32 with 324 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
“He’s a gamer,” Otterbein said of Weatherhead. “He’s a very smart guy and 99 percent of the time he’s going to make the right read. When you combine that with his natural skills he’s a tough guy to stop.”
Weatherford was aided by a quartet of quality receivers, led by Holmes, who had seven catches for 153 yards on the game, and A.J. Kegg, who had nine for 88. Mike Blanchard and Matt Patillo also caught touchdowns for the Chargers.
“It’s the work we put in during the week that allows us to be effective on Saturdays,” Holmes said of the receiving corps. “In the film room, on the practice field, we put the time in to be the best we can be as a unit and it showed today.”
The final piece of the puzzle was the offensive line, which dominated the Huskies at the point of attack all game. The line rarely allowed pressure to get to Weatherhead, often giving him five or more seconds to throw.
“We have a lot of experienced guys in our unit,” senior captain and offensive tackle Jared Veldheer said. “We all know we have a job to do out there, we know how to do it, and from there it’s just a matter of getting it done.”
While the defense gave up 35 points to Michigan Tech’s prolific offense, they did hold the GLIAC’s leading rusher in 2008, Phil Milbrath, to just 75 yards rushing and a 3.8 yards per carry average.
Led by Mat Szula’s eight tackles, the defense also forced a crucial fourth quarter 3-and-out after a missed field goal attempt gave the Huskies a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter. That 3-and-out gave the ball back to the offense and set up Weatherhead’s 53-yard pass and the game-sealing touchdown.
Preseason All-American kicker Mark Petro went 4-4 on extra points and hit field goals of 20, 24, and 29 yards while missing a 44 yard attempt.
The victory moves Hillsdale to 2-0 on the season and 1-0 in the GLIAC.
It also improves the Chargers playoff hopes while severely damaging the Huskies; with a maximum of three playoff berths from the GLIAC and two ranked teams in Ashland and Grand Valley State still on the schedule, the win keeps Hillsdale’s hopes of taking that third playoff spot alive.
“It’s a huge win, no doubt about it,” Kegg said. “Last year that early loss to (Tech) put us behind the eight-ball right away. But there’s still a lot of football to be played, and everyone in this league is dangerous. We’re not going to look past Northwood next week, and that’s our focus right now.”