If Wabash's 2001 win over DePauw in the Monon Bell is
forever "The Catch," then Saturday's improbable 29-28 playoff win
over North Central should be dubbed "The Comeback."
The No. 9 (and now 12-0) Little Giants rallied from a late third quarter 28-7 deficit and scored a gutsy two-point conversion with a minute left to knock off the No. 6-ranked (10-2) Cardinals. Wabash advances to play at Mount Union Saturday in the national quarterfinals in Alliance Ohio. Mount Union is the bracket's No. 1 seed.
See game photos here, here, and here.
• Tyler Burke made his first start of the year replacing an injured Chase Belton. Two of his first three passes were intercepted and the other was incomplete.
• Wabash had 79 yards of total offense at half time.
• After Burke hit Wes Chamblee on a 20-yard scoring strike to open the third quarter, the Cardinals immediately responded with a 62-yard drive to push the margin to 28-7 with six minutes left in the third period.
• After pulling to within 1 at 28-27 on a Jeff Bell 1-yard TD catch, Coach Erik Raeburn made one of gustiest calls of his tenure. He elected to play for the win.
But getting to that play was the making of a memorable and improbable comeback against one of D3 football's best defenses.
It started with halftime adjustments by Defense Coach B.J. Hammer. The Wabash defense had allowed 128 first half rushing yards. They were able to slow that down in the second half.
Burke started the comeback aided by Wes Chamblee. He found Chamblee on a 20 yard pass to get Wabash on the board and then a 33-yard scoring strike on a fourth-and-8 to cut the margin to 28-14.
Then came one of the key plays of the game for North Central. After a 9- and 20-yard gain by the Cardinal rushing attack, Cody Buresh forced a Jordan Tassio fumble, recovered by Kyle Najar, at the Wabash 31.
"I thought we had a great drive going and would have put the game away," said North Central Coach John Thorne said. "We had a fumble, and he never fumbles."
The momentum had clearly shifted but it still wasn't easy.
North Central forced a fourth-and-12 after a sack. But Burke found a leaping Wes Chamblee at mid-field for the first down. Seven plays later Burke hit Horn for a 23-yard touchdown, 28-21, that had the sideline and Little Giant Stadium rocking.
The defense then lived up to its year-long billing and forced a quick three and out. Burke opened the series taking an 8-yard sack.
"I'd be first to tell you that I'd be nervous in that situation," he said of the final drive. "But the pain and the situation, I knew I had to step up. I had to do it for my team. We were just rolling and it felt like we had such momentum. I felt like we couldn't be stopped and that's just how we felt in the fourth quarter. We had all the confidence in the world we were going to score on that last drive."
Burke clearly was not going to be denied. Facing a fourth-and-14 at his own 29 yard line, the senior quarterback was forced out of the pocket and took off running for a 16-yard gain and first down.
Two pass completions for 12 and 13 yards to Horn moved the ball to the Cardinal 24. Wabash faced another fourth down. NCC jumped on the snap count was penalized giving Wabash another life.
Then Horn stepped up with an 18-yard catch at the 1-yard line. Burke rolled out and hit sophomore tight end Jeff Bell for the touchdown, 28-27. (In photo at right, Horn caught the ball inbounds and was trying to get it to the goal line.) (Bell celebrates the touchdown, bottom left.)
Then Raeburn decided to go for the win. The Little Giants came out of the huddle and shifted a portion of their line wide right. A North Central lineman was called off sides giving Wabash the ball at the two.
"The play we had called I thought we could get them," Raeburn said of the two-point conversion attempt. "I didn't want to go to overtime because they were running ball better than we had. I thought they'd have the advantage. We decided to go for the win. I was very confident the play we had called would work.
"Then they jumped off sides and I felt like we couldn't come back to that play because they'd already seen the shift. Then the play we had called I thought would work. We tried to throw it to Wes and he basically got tackled. Then Tyler threw it to James and he tipped it to Brady just like the way we practiced it."
Of course the last remark was accompanied by a chuckle. In a play reminiscent of that 2001 Monon Miracle tipped pass catch, Senior Brady Young was in the right place at the right time. But unlike the Monon Miracle, it was not a set play.
"The play was going to Wes, we were going to throw it in the middle," Young said. "I'm running and taking off for the corner of the end zone and I see Burke looking to the outside. He threw the ball to (James) Kraus who's right on the line. My guy goes up and hits Kraus. I saw the ball was coming a little high. I was standing back there waiting on it. I was thinking if this is tipped anywhere I'm going after it. I'm going to get it. And you know, it tipped right into my hands."
The improbable Little Giant rally was complete. Wabash led 29-28 with just 52 seconds to play.
"I'm super proud of our team, how hard they played and how they kept fighting," Raeburn said. "Even though we were down big, I'm particularly proud of this guy (as he pats Burke on shoulder in the postgame news conference). We've had some guys who got beat out for a starting position and they hung it up. Thank God Tyler is not one of those guys."
Burke hit 24-of 49 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns. Wes Chamblee had a monster day with 9 catches for 147 yards, two touchdowns, and 215 all-purpose yards. Senior Jonathan Horn had an even bigger day with 13 catches for 152 yards, and a touchdown.
"The emotions are out the roof right now," Horn said. "This is what we've worked for all season long. Always means always and we showed that in the second half. We made our corrections at half time for the second half and I think we wanted it more in the end. We executed the best we could offensively, defensively, and special teams."
North Central piled up 208 yards rushing to Wabash's 92. But in the critical fourth quarter the Cardinals managed just 51 yards rushing and 25 passing.
The huge Wabash advantage came in the passing game where Burke's 311 yards dwarfed the 127 yards that five Cardinal passers accumulated.
Defensively, CJ Gum collected 15 tackles with freshman Cody Buresh adding 9 more. Senior Kyle Najar had an outstanding day with 7 stops. Freshman AJ Akinridbade had six stops, three of those for a Cardinal loss. Jorge Diaz-Aguilar and Jonathan Koop had five tackles apiece.