For the past decade, Grand Valley State has been the dominant force in GLIAC football.
The Lakers have racked up a 45-game winning streak over conference foes and have not lost a regular-season game since 2004.
That is, until Saturday afternoon, when the Hillsdale College Chargers scored a touchdown with 36 seconds to go to stun Grand Valley 27-24 and pick up the Homecoming victory in front of a mostly elated crowd of 3,000-plus fans.
“I have a huge amount of respect for Grand Valley personally, because everything they do is at a championship level, whether it’s recruiting, practicing, or playing the games,” said Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein following the win. “To beat a team like them is a huge accomplishment and a testament to the passion and fire that our kids played with today.”
Hillsdale got the ball back with 5:27 to play in the fourth quarter down 24-20 after the Lakers’ Justin Trumble hit a 30-yard field goal, and they didn’t disappoint.
Starting at their own 33-yard line, the Chargers’ offense methodically worked their way down the field with an 11-play, 67 yard drive that featured key plays on the ground and through the air. Finally, Hillsdale fullback Billy Kanitz put the Chargers ahead, diving over the pile for a goal-line touchdown run.
“That drive was the definition of team play,” said Hillsdale quarterback Troy Weatherhead, who was 4-for-5 on the drive and 21-for-32 for 265 yards for the game. “Everyone executed their assignments to perfection, we kept our cool, and we got it done.”
GVSU had 36.4 seconds to answer, but, having used all of their timeouts earlier in the second half, they could only set up a 49-yard field goal attempt. Going against the wind the kick went wide right, giving the Chargers the win.
“It’s one of those things that you dream of when you’re playing in your backyard as a kid, being the underdog and knocking off Goliath,” said Hillsdale defensive lineman Jared Veldheer. “It’s so surreal to have it actually happen. We worked hard and we never stopped believing we could pull it off.”
The Lakers outgained the Chargers in total offense 427-324, but struggled to put the ball in the end zone, especially in the fourth quarter. Grand Valley moved the ball across midfield three times in the quarter, but managed only three total points, opening the door for the Hillsdale.
The game opened with the Lakers jumping out to a 9-0 lead early in the first quarter behind the passing of quarterback Brad Iciek. Iciek was solid all game, going 22-for-29 for 261 yards and two touchdowns.
The Chargers responded immediately though, going 79 yards in eight plays in the second quarter to score on a 5-yard run by Troy Weatherhead.
Hillsdale then got a field goal and GVSU fumbled the ensuing kickoff, setting up another Hillsdale touchdown by Vinny Panizzi, who ran it in from 10 yards out. Panizzi, the GLIAC’s leading rusher, finished with 60 yards on 17 carries.
The Lakers quickly responded before halftime with a 1-yard run by James Berezik, to go into halftime down 17-15. Berezik finished as the game’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 13 times for 93 yards.
The Lakers got a second half touchdown when Iciek hit wide receiver Blake Smolen from 28 yards out, and Hillsdale added another field goal from Mark Petro to set the score at 21-20 to set up an exciting finish.
“It was a fight from the start, and we knew that it was going to come down to whoever was still throwing punches at the end,” said Hillsdale linebacker Joe Stempien. “We worked extremely hard to be ready for this game and we just never lost our focus, no matter what happened, and that carried us through.”
One area in which the Chargers were stellar was special teams. Petro, the kicker, was perfect on the day, punter Eric Schweller averaged 47.5 on his two punts, and returners Mike Blanchard and Nick Hixon averaged a phenomenal 31.7 yards per return.
“We take a lot of pride in our special teams and we devote a great deal of practice time to every facet of it,” Otterbein said. “We feel like we won the special teams battle today, and it’s no stretch to say that might have been the difference.”
Both Grand Valley State (6-1, 5-1 GLIAC) and Hillsdale (5-2, 4-2 GLIAC) have crucial games coming up next week. The Lakers return home to battle Findlay, who is now tied with GVSU for the lead in the league race, in what will be their homecoming game. Hillsdale, on the other hand, travels to the Upper Peninsula to take on 6-1 Northern Michigan, who also has a share of the conference lead.
Both games figure to present a major challenge, as both GVSU and Hillsdale look to shore up their playoff hopes as the GLIAC season rolls along.