By James Gensterblum / Daily News Corespondent
This football season, the Hillsdale College Chargers’ offense has been tearing through their GLIAC competition with a balanced attack equally adept at doing damage through the air and on the ground.
This Saturday, however, the Chargers may have had their most impressive offensive performance yet. Hillsdale shredded their rivals, the Wayne State Warriors, for 532 yards in a 45-14 blowout victory that gives the Chargers an inside track for their first D-II playoff berth in school history.
“Our kids deserve a lot of credit,” said Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein. “You could tell this week in practice that they recognized the importance of this game and they maintained that intensity all the way to the final whistle, but at the same time they stayed relaxed and loose enough to maintain their composure. They hit that perfect balance and played a complete game in every facet.”
Chargers quarterback Troy Weatherhead opened the game on a tear, feasting on a banged-up and suspect Wayne State secondary for three first-half touchdowns, all to wideout Andre Holmes.
Holmes, 6-foot 5-inch, took advantage of a matchup against 5-foot 10- inch cornerback Stan Thornton, catching 5 passes for 113 yards including touchdowns of three, 22, and 68 yards in the first half alone.
“Our coaches always tell us that the opportunities are there for you to make big plays every game,” Holmes said. “You just have to reach out and take them. I think everyone on this team has really bought into that message and it shows when you watch us play.”
When Wayne State started doubling Holmes in the second half, Hillsdale turned to running back Vinny Panizzi, who gashed the mostly six- and seven-man fronts of the Warriors for 127 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
That 100+ yard effort also gave Panizzi his third straight 1,000 yard season at Hillsdale, a milestone only matched by Hillsdale College Hall of famer and career rushing leader Scott Schulte.
“It feels great to be able to accomplish something like that, though getting the win feels even better,” Panizzi said. “It’s great to be playing here, with this group of guys, in games like this, and having the opportunity to achieve milestones at the same time.”
Weatherhead also continued his prolific output in the second half, hitting A.J. Kegg for his fourth touchdown of the game. All told, Weatherhead finished 23-33 for 356 yards and no interceptions.
“Our offense is balanced enough that we don’t have to try to force anything, we can just take what they give us,” Panizzi said. “We feel like we can always find a matchup to exploit, no matter who we’re playing.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers faced a stern challenge in the GLIAC’s leading rusher, Joique Bell.
Bell lived up to his considerable hype, rushing for 165 yards and two TDs on 24 carries, but was largely a one-man show for the Warriors, as Hillsdale shut down Wayne State’s passing attack.
“We focused a lot of our attention on Bell,” linebacker David Bakker said. “We knew that with a guy that talented that we weren’t going to be able to shut him down completely, but we knew that if we could stop him enough to force their offense into third-and-longs, we’d have the advantage.”
Wayne State used three quarterbacks, none of whom had more than 77 yards passing, and was unable to make Hillsdale pay for having eight men in the box most of the game.
The win improves Hillsdale’s record on the season to 7-2 overall and 6-2 in the GLIAC, and sets up a very favorable playoff scenario for the Chargers going forward. Currently, Hillsdale is fifth in the regional standings, but a loss by fourth place Wayne St. (Neb) this Saturday will likely vault them into that spot.
That means that if the Chargers can win their next two games against Ferris State and Tiffin, teams that have a combined one win on the season between them, Hillsdale is almost a lock to make the playoffs.
“I was taught as a player by men like Jack McAvoy that the best way to avoid an upset was to have tunnel vision: focus only on the next opponent and nothing else,” Otterbein said. “Our entire focus this week is on Ferris, and we won’t spend a second thinking about Tiffin or the playoffs until that game is over. Hopefully, that focus will allow us to play our best again.”