WHEATON — As Zach Walsh approached the line of scrimmage with 11 seconds left Saturday, the Illinois Wesleyan sophomore faced single coverage to the right of quarterback Brandon Bauer.
Walsh was ready.
“I had a drop earlier in that drive on third down and had to do something to make up for that,” said Walsh.
Consider it done.
Walsh made a nifty one-handed catch in the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown pass from Bauer with six seconds left. That gave the No. 19-ranked Titans a 14-10 upset victory over No. 5 Wheaton in a game crucial for IWU’s hopes in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin and the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The Titans’ first victory at McCully Stadium since 1996 improved their record to 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the CCIW. It completed a grueling September start to the season which saw IWU play three teams ranked in the preseason top seven in Division III.
While the Titans’ 13-play, 86-yard game-winning drive will be remembered for a long time, the IWU defensive effort could not be ignored by coach Norm Eash.
“They scored on a halfback pass, It’s a good call, but it’s a halfback pass. It’s a trick play,” said Eash. “Other than that, our defense gave up three points. They (Wheaton) have a great defense, but we’re a great defense, too, and they kept us in the ball game.”
Wheaton (4-1, 2-1) came in averaging 48.0 points and 449.2 yards in its first four games. IWU held the Thunder to 278 yards. Wheaton’s Sola Olateju, who was leading the CCIW in rushing and averaging 9.0 yards per carry, was held to 62 yards on 22 carries.
For IWU senior linebacker Jordan Hassan, who grew up two blocks from McCully Stadium, the outcome was “unbelievable.”
“We were just flying around and having fun,” said Hassan, who made 14 tackles. “That’s what we put a big emphasis on when we got on the field. It’s football and let’s have fun with it. The D (defensive) line was incredibly fast today. They kept their run game almost non-existent, and they had to rely on the pass. It was a great overall team effort.”
But that effort almost came up short.
Wheaton’s Dmarte Arafiles intercepted a tipped Bauer pass at IWU’s 20 with 11:09 left and the game tied at 7-all. The IWU defense held and Wheaton settled for Stefan Knoerr’s 33-yard field goal with 9:38 left for a 10-7 lead.
The Titans went three-and-out on their next series, but the IWU defense forced a Wheaton punt which was fair caught at the Titans’ 14 with 2:33 left.
IWU had not threatened to score since the first quarter when Morgan Alexander broke off a 28-yard TD run for a 7-0 lead.
Still, Bauer said everyone was confident in the huddle.
“We knew our defense had played unbelievable all game and we couldn’t let them down,” he said. “We work on two-minute drill every day in practice. We knew what we were doing. We stayed calm. Everyone did their job.”
Alexander’s 12-yard run on fourth-and-one at Wheaton's 47 kept the drive going. Bauer hit Brian Johnson, a former quarterback, with three passes on the next four plays. The game appeared over when Wheaton sacked Bauer on third-and-3 at the Thunder 12 and IWU out of timeouts, but Wheaton called a timeout just before the ball was snapped.
IWU regrouped. Bauer had three receivers in a set to his left, but liked what he saw on Walsh’s side.
“Zach Walsh is one of our one-on-one play-makers,” said Bauer. “We saw press man (to man coverage) and thought we would take a shot. He made a play just like we thought he would. I’m putting it up there and letting him make a play.”
Walsh’s right hand was actually grabbed by a Wheaton defender, who was flagged for holding. So Walsh used his left hand to corral the pass and complete what he called “a pretty cool drive.”
“Our whole offensive line is seniors and Brandon has a lot of experience and calmed everyone down,” said Walsh. “They said, '‘It’s one drive, we do it every week. Let's put it in the end zone here.’”
Defenses dominated in a physical contest which saw IWU lose tight end Andrew Apel in the first quarter and cornerback Quintin Walters on the second-half kickoff.
Knoerr missed a 37-yard field goal on Wheaton’s first series of the game. The Thunder finally scored on 16-yard pass from halfback Jaelin Goldsmith to Carter Roberts with 8:07 left in the second quarter.
Neither team threatened in the third quarter. Wheaton caught a break when IWU’s Mitch Pfeiffer fumbled a punt and the Thunder’s Daniel Herber recovered near midfield. But a John Nolan sack of Wheaton quarterback Curtis McWilliams stalled the Thunder and led to a punt early in the fourth quarter.
“We had some bad breaks,” said Eash. “We did not get the breaks we needed, but our kids did not have a breaking point. That’s what we talk about all the time.”
Bauer finished 20 of 36 for 199 yards, with Liam Keffer grabbing eight passes for 96 yards. Alexander gained 98 yards on 26 carries as the Titans finished with 284 yards of total offense.
McWilliams went 19 of 26 for 189 yards. Trevor Staley picked off McWilliams at IWU’s 10 in the second quarter.
IWU travels to face Augustana next Saturday in Rock Island.