While the math that determines the playoffs for Division II can be confusing at best, the formula for Hillsdale is very simple.
Win or else.
The 20th-ranked Chargers will host Tiffin at 1 p.m. Saturday in the regular season finale. At 8-2, Hillsdale finds itself in the last spot for the playoffs in the Midwest Region.
A win over 0-10 Tiffin gives the Chargers their best shot at making the postseason. Lose and the season is over.
“We have to go out and just do it,” offensive coordinator Barry Fagan said Thursday. “If we win we have an 85 percent chance. If we lose we have no chance.”
Tiffin’s offense and defense has struggled this year.
The offense averages 315 yards a game, but only 13 points a game. On defense, they give up on average 444 yards a game and about 38 points.
Their leading rusher is Alvin McKnight, who is listed as a receiver. He has a net of 312 yards and a touchdown. The Tiffins have only three rushing touchdowns all season, compared to 34 for its opponents. Nate Scully is the quarterback. He has thrown for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns, but also has 14 interceptions.
Fagan said the Dragons’ record is deceiving. After losing their first eight games by double digits, Tiffin had has two close games, including a 21-17 loss at Indianapolis on Oct. 24 and a 21-14 defeat in their home finale against Michigan Tech.
“They’ve got some athletes,” Fagan said. “We are not taking them lightly at all.”
Good thing because last year Hillsdale visited Tiffin and took a commanding 30-7 lead only to see the Dragons come out in the second half and take the lead 36-30. A touchdown pass from Troy Weatherhead to A.J. Kegg late in that game spared the Chargers from an upset loss.
But Hillsdale has its own upset win to brag about, bringing down No. 1-ranked Grand Valley State University 27-24 on Homecoming.
Head coach Keith Otterbein said that victory turned this season into a “magical year.” But he thinks his team was successful already.
“Over the last three years we’ve had the second-winningest program in the league,” he said. “The kids have stepped up and are ready to play.”
He said his squad has shown its dedication to winning and has made the physical and emotional investment it takes to be successful.
“They are locked in,” he said.
The Chargers are led on offense by Weatherhead (2,498 yards, 14 TDS), a junior from the Grand Rapids area. Otterbein is high on his quarterback, especially after inheriting the job from Mark Nicolet.
“Troy has done a physically amazing job stepping in the shoes of Mark Nicolet,” Otterbein said. “That’s a pretty high bar.”
Otterbein said Weatherhead shows a good game day presence. Since his first day the coach has seen his player mature and handle the job.
“The game has slowed down dramatically for him the last two seasons,” Otterbein said. “He’s had a lot of snaps, a lot of reps.
“He’s taken his time like Peyton Manning. He works at it, he knows the game plan.”
It helps that he has an experienced line protecting him. Fagan credits senior left tackle Jared Veldheer and junior center Phil Doerfler with anchoring the line.
Vinnie Panizzi has also blossomed this year, Fagan said. The senior has surpassed 1,000 yards (1,178 net, 16 TDs) for the third time in his career
“He has done a great job running north and south,” the coach said. “He used to dance in the backfield, but he’d get buried. Now he can get 130 yards a game and 100 will be after the first contact.”
Another reason for Hillsdale’s success is the play of the defensive line. Otterbein said the experience on the defensive line makes it hard on opposing runners to bounce around without getting hit.
The pass rush is led by senior lineman Drew Berube who has 11 sacks this year. Saturday’s game may be his last at home for the former Hillsdale High School player, but he may just get a taste of the playoffs.