Wabash passes first test

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Sophomore Matt Penola is one of three running backs trying to fill the shoes of graduated D3football.com All-American Mason Zurek.
Wabash athletics photo 

Wabash’s uniforms changed a little this season, as did the Little Giants’ roster.

But, the familiar white helmets with the red ‘W’ remained the same.

So did the moxie of the guys wearing them. They proved it in a huge 41-34 overtime win at Albion in Week 1.

The game took the Little Giants on quite the rollercoaster ride:

  • 20-3 halftime lead trimmed to a 27-24 edge after three
  • 31-27 deficit early in the fourth
  • Down 34-27 with 6:09 to go
  • Game-tying rally with 12 seconds remaining on a fourth-down pass
  • Touchdown on their first overtime possession
  • Defensive stop of Albion on its OT possession to seal the win

“It was a great win for us, in terms of the team we played and how resilient we were at the end. It speaks to the coaching staff we have and the players we have. I was very proud to be with those guys and the attitude we had on the sidelines,” Wabash senior quarterback Connor Rice said. “Even though we got down, we still believed we could come back and we did.

“I think we handled everything the right way. You never think of that first game heading into OT. From my standpoint, I was happy we went through that right away. It spoke volumes about the leadership on the team. We just responded. We had no doubt in our mind we could come back,” he continued. “It was great for the freshmen to get a glimpse of Wabash football and the mentality we have. It was a great start to the year.”

While many teams like to open their campaigns with a favorable matchup, the No. 13 Little Giants went right into the fire against the Britons. It was a rematch of last year’s first-round playoff game, which Wabash won 35-14 en route to the national quarterfinals.

“Albion did a great job. I completely expect them to win their conference, too,” Wabash coach Don Morel said. “I think, defensively, they are better than they were last year. Certainly, they have an explosive offensive system that they run very well.

“You don’t know who your football team is until after the first game. It’s the great revealer.

It was just a really good game to start with and I think it revealed our football team immediately. We’re fortunate because we did win it, too.”

It was a huge victory for Wabash, which saw two big changes from years past. Morel was in his first game as head coach after serving four years as the team’s offensive coordinator. In addition, the team was playing its first game since the graduation of running back Mason Zurek, the NCAC’s offensive player of the year.

“For me, it was more about tweaking than overhauling things. Anyone who went to the game, it looked like Wabash football. We try to run the ball and play good defense – the things we’ve done here for many years,” Morel said. “Mason Zurek was an amazing football player. We feel like we have three guys that can kind of pick up where he left off and I think we’ll still produce the same rushing numbers. It just won’t be one guy getting them all. It’ll be spread out.”

Senior Shamir Johnson, junior Tyler Downing and sophomore Matt Penola are tasked with trying to replace Zurek, a first-team All-American, who rushed for a program-record 2,011 yards last year. Downing rushed for 116 yards and three touchdowns, while Penola had 88 yards and a score. Johnson had 40 yards on nine carries before leaving with an injury. He was one of seven Little Giants regulars who either left the game or did not play due to injury.

So, the team’s off week came in handy after the win at Albion.

“I like having the second week off, actually. We did need it,” Morel said. “I think there is some correlation there without any contact allowed in spring football. I bet if you asked any D-III college coach when his team is most banged up, they’d say right after camp because the kids haven’t had any contact after November until camp. We’ve had an off week in Week 2 the last three years and we like it.”

All seven injured players are expected back for the squad’s NCAC opener this weekend against Allegheny. Also, the week off gave the team time to digest the win, fully.

“We had some guys get hurt and some already banged up, so it’s nice to get some rest. And, we could focus in and see what we didn’t do well and work on that,” Rice said. “After watching film, we saw it was very doable for us to improve, especially for my part at quarterback. There were a lot of mistakes I made during that game that could have propelled us to win by a significant margin. The defense came through when they needed to, though.”

Wabash went into the opener not quite sure what it had, but emerged reassured heading into conference play. The Little Giants hope to defend their NCAC crown.

“It gave us a lot of confidence to come back and get a win. I am so proud of these guys,” Rice said. “It gives us a lot of confidence moving forward, that momentum we needed. We don’t want to put ourselves in that situation again, but now we know we have the team that can respond to the challenge.”

Close calls

St. Vincent, 32, Thiel 30: The Bearcats never trailed, but the Tomcats kept pace and tied the game twice. Thiel rallied from a 32-23 deficit in the fourth quarter. However, a blocked extra point returned 98 yards for a touchdown right before halftime proved to be the decisive margin.

Wooster 49, Allegheny 40: The Gators hoped to snap a 19-game losing streak. They held a 10-7 lead in the first and came within 28-27 early in the third and 42-40 early in the fourth, but could not overcome the Fighting Scots.

In the polls

No. 1 Mount Union opened its season with a 45-10 win at N.C. Wesleyan. Three freshman quarterbacks split time for the Purple Raiders, who welcome Marietta on Saturday to open OAC action.

No. 13 Wabash (1-0) was idle. The Little Giants welcome Allegheny on Saturday to begin NCAC play.

No. 20 Thomas More (1-1) cruised to a 41-17 triumph at Bridgewater (Va.). The Saints had 634 yards of total offense. Thomas More makes its home debut Saturday against Washington & Jefferson in a huge PAC clash.

No. 23 Washington & Jefferson (2-0) beat Grove City 65-13. Presidents QB Pete Coughlin passed for a program-best seven TDs. His passing efficiency rating was 383.3, which set program and PAC records. A key showdown at Thomas More looms for the squad.

Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

2012-14 columnist: Brian Lester
2011 columnist: Dean Jackson
2007-10 columnist: Matt Florjancic

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