BLOOMINGTON — In all of 78 seconds, Illinois Wesleyan's 17-point halftime lead against Wheaton was trimmed to three Saturday night at Tucci Stadium.
“When we were freshmen we were up something similar to that (24-17 at halftime against Wheaton) and blew it,” said IWU junior wide receiver Zach Walsh. “We were able to keep our composure better.”
The Titans might have been staggered, but they took the Thunder's best punch and persevered in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin opener.
IWU's defense made a dramatic turnaround from its opening-game effort, holding the Thunder to 188 yards. That effort sparked the Titans to a 24-14 victory over No. 12-ranked Wheaton.
“Our kids played great. They played hungry,” said IWU coach Norm Eash. “We talk about when you have a loss you don't get rid of that bad feeling you have until you get the next win. I sensed that from our kids. They worked hard this week.”
Eash became the winningest coach in CCIW history with the victory. He was tied with 142 victories with his coach at IWU, Don Larson. Eash surpassed Larson as the Titans' all-time leader in 2013.
IWU also beat Wheaton for the first time in consecutive years since ripping off four straight 1979-82.
“To be able to have your name as the winningest coach in the CCIW means a lot. It's a great league and great coaches,” said Eash. “The greatest coach was Coach Larson. We were 1-2 for a long time and we're still 1-2. Coach Larson is probably up there looking down and smiling. Hopefully he's OK with us switching positions.”
IWU gained 387 yards, mostly through the air. Brandon Bauer completed 26 of 40 attempts for 303 yards, with Walsh pulling in nine receptions for 138 yards, both career highs, and a touchdown.
The Titans defense allowed 460 yards and 23 first downs in last week's disappointing 34-31 loss to Wisconsin-La Crosse. IWU let UW-La Crosse drive down the field for a game-winning field goal with no time left.
“I don't think there was anything we needed to change,” said IWU free safety Trevor Staley, who had an interception return for a TD. “We knew we were one of the best defenses in the CCIW. We just needed our chances. I think we made our statement today.”
IWU dominated the first half in every phase. The Titans gained 176 yards to Wheaton's 57, while IWU had 11 first downs and the Thunder three.
But that mattered little as Wheaton used two big plays to start the second half and get back in the game.
Adam Terrini started the second half with a bang for Wheaton. He went 91 yards with the kickoff before being stopped at IWU's 5. Jaelin Goldsmith scored on the next play as IWU's lead was cut to 17-7.
Two plays later, disaster struck for the Titans.
Jack Healy snagged a reception for a first down, but the ball was jarred loose by Wheaton's Daniel Herber. Kyle Fox picked up the loose ball and ran 32 yards for a touchdown as IWU's lead was trimmed to 17-14 with 13:42 left in the third quarter.
IWU's defense still wasn't giving Wheaton many yards. The Titans offense went to its hurry-up mode and began to move the ball.
The Titans put together a nine-play, 91-yard drive, culminated by Bauer's 15-yard pass to Walsh on the first play of the fourth quarter, and again had some breathing room with a 24-14 lead.
“Brandon threw a great ball to Zach Walsh to get in there. That was big,” said Eash. “From there we managed the game pretty well.”
Wheaton's last gasp ended when Curtis McWilliams threw an incompletion on fourth-and-3 from the Thunder's 48 with 2:28 left.
“This is huge,” said Walsh, who caught a game-winning pass with six seconds left last year to win at Wheaton. “This was a two-way street for our season here (playoffs and CCIW). This is a big one if you really look at it. This puts us back in the driver's seat. All we talk about is winning the CCIW, and we're where we want to be.”
Patrick Tata's 25-yard field goal gave IWU a 3-0 lead with 1:24 left in the first quarter.
Wheaton got its initial first down on the next series, but on second-and-8, Staley stepped in front of a McWilliams pass in the flat and raced untouched 62 yards into the end zone to put the Titans ahead, 10-0, with 13:39 left in the half.
“We were in cover-3 and I was rolling down,” said Staley. “I saw the quarterback's eyes looking for a slant. I tried to bait him into it and at the last second jumped back out in the passing lane.”
IWU put together a nine-play, 62-yard drive, culminated by Morgan Alexander's 1-yard run, to extend its lead to 17-0 with 47 seconds left before halftime.
The Titans face Augustana at 6 p.m. next Saturday in Moline.