The Big Blue defense slowed Wheaton enough to set up late-game heroics from Millikin's offense.
By Clyde Hughes
There are big things happening for the Millikin Big Blue this season, and it appears to go beyond the program’s stunning 35-31 win over then-No. 13-ranked Wheaton on Saturday.
Millikin is now 4-1, losing only to No. 4-ranked North Central and if the Big Blue runs the table toward the end of the season, they could face No. 11-ranked Illinois Wesleyan (5-1, 3-1) in Week 11 for a chance to get into the Division III playoffs. Depending on the outcome of the Little Brass Bell game, a share of the CCIW title could also be on the line.
"It was a big win for our program," said Millikin coach Dan Gritti. "We needed to show that we could beat the top end of our conference. We had an opportunity and failed so it was important to take advantage of this opportunity."
The Big Blue's effort Saturday could be summed up in its last drive. After Millikin came from behind to finally take the lead against the Thunder in the fourth quarter, Wheaton scored what appeared to the game-winner. Grinding out a 14-play drive, Curtis McWilliams hit Phillip Nichol with a two-yard touchdown pass with 1:58 left in the game.
Unbowed, Millikin went on an 83-yard drive led by the sensational play of quarterback Nicco Stepina. He completed an 18-yard pass to Jazontae Howard, a 15-yarder to Patrick Cooper, and a big 29-yard pass to Jordan Smith that put the Big Blue inside the five-yard line. Stepina finished off the drive with a two-yard run with 31 seconds left on the clock to complete the upset.
|Patrick Cooper was one of several receivers Nicco Stepina connected with on the game-winning drive.
Kevin Krows/Millikin University
"This team has incredible self-belief which stems from how close everyone is," Gritti said. "The guy who needs to make a play isn't just a teammate; he's your brother and as a result you believe that they will get it done. Our confidence never wavered.
"The mentality during the final drive was one of extreme focus. We knew they had left too much time on the clock and we spend time each week practicing two-minute drills where I put the offense in unbelievably difficult situations. For the offense, they were confident since they had succeeded in much worse ones."
Stepina finished the game completing 26 of 48 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns against a tough Wheaton defense.
"Nicco Stepina has proven to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country," Gritti said. "The easiest way to explain his performance was that he was an artist who mixed in his ability to run, throw, and lead and created his masterpiece.
"To have two of his three best wide receivers, his starting running back, and the left side of his offensive line all out injured and put on that performance in the face of a very good and extremely physical Wheaton defense was a true testament to how great he is."
When Millikin needed to step up on defense, the Big Blue did, keeping up against a balanced Wheaton attack.
"Defensively, it was a team effort," Gritti said. "I thought our defensive backs, especially our cornerbacks Demetreeus Loper and Lashon Johnson did an excellent job containing the talented Wheaton wide receiving corps. We for the most part didn't allow Wheaton to have big explosive plays and forced them to more methodically move the ball which allowed for us to cause some turnovers.
"Going into the game, we knew that the Wheaton running back (Sola Olateju, 114 yards on 18 carries) was one of the best in the country so we would have to account most of our resources to trying to contain him. As a result, the defensive backs needed to step up without much help, and they did.”
Now, can Millikin feed off the win, break into the Top 25 and capture a playoff spot?
"(The Wheaton victory) was an important win for us to measure where we are," Gritti said. "There is an old saying, 'to be the best, you need to beat the best.' Wheaton is one of the best programs in the entirety of D-III so it was a monumental step for us. That being said, we are on to Augustana."
Lake Forest lone undefeated in MWC
Lake Forest's 28-21 win over Knox in its MWC South opener leaves the Foresters the lone undefeated in the conference at 5-0 overall. The last time the Foresters were 5-0 was 2012, but they lost two of their next four games and finished 8-2 and out of the playoffs. But when Lake Forest went 5-0 in 2002, they finished 9-1 entering the Division III playoffs. It was the last time the Foresters made the postseason.
While star tailback Joey Valdivia was slowed down against Knox (23 carries for 55 yards), quarterback Jagan Cleary continued to shine, completing 20 of 32 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns.
Lake Forest's biggest challenge is yet to come in an Oct. 28 date with defending champion Monmouth, but anything can happen along the way (see Millikin story above). The Scots have bounced back nicely from a Week 2 loss to win three in a row.
But that's just half of the conference. Conference newcomer University of Chicago (3-2, 1-0) will get a good measuring stick test to perennial MWC power St. Norbert (3-2, 1-0) in DePere, Wis. in a pivotal North Division game. The contest will start to shake out who will end up at the top of the heap there.
Games to watch
No. 4 North Central (5-0, 3-0 in CCIW) at Wheaton (4-2, 2-2 in CCIW), 8 p.m.: The Little Brass Bell will always be a big game, regardless if both teams are nationally ranked or not. While the Thunder possibly saw their playoff chances end with last weekend's loss to Millikin, they can get some measure of pleasure by derailing their suburban Chicago rival. There should be plenty of bad blood to go around this game. North Central beat Wheaton during the regular season last year, 35-25, but the Thunder humbled the Cardinals on the road in the second round of Division III playoffs five weeks later, 31-14. So, while North Central will feel like it's got a score to settle (if not a first-round home game), we know records can be thrown out the window. In the Millikin loss, it was the first time Wheaton had fallen in two consecutive contests since 2009, when the Thunder closed the season with losses to Illinois Wesleyan (20-17) and Carthage (35-30). The Thunder haven't lost three in a row since the 1997 season (4-5) when they opened with losses to Kalamazoo (21-20), Aurora (32-25) and Augustana (21-16).
Benedictine (3-2, 2-0 in NACC) at Lakeland (3-2, 1-0 in NACC), 2 p.m.: Two of the three remaining undefeated teams in the conference will play, with the winner taking the driver’s seat for the possible conference title with Aurora (3-2, 2-0). Both teams are riding the hot performances by their quarterbacks last week and may be in the need of air traffic controllers on Saturday. Lakeland's Michael Whitley completed 21 of 39 passes for 433 yards and a school-record seven touchdowns in a wild 47-40 win over Adrian in a non-conference tilt last weekend. In Benedictine's 40-14 win over Concordia (Wis.), Ryan Sample was an impressive 30 for 37 for 413 yards and five touchdowns. Lakeland's Dezman Eddie caught three passes for 123 yards, all three for touchdowns. Benedictine's Brandon Moore caught nine passes for 159 yards. The trump card may be the play of the defense. Benedictine held Concordia to 20 yards rushing and 214 total yards. Something has to give against Whitley, whose 373.4 passing yards per game is second best in the country.
Player to watch
Micah Roberson, senior, wide receiver, Bluffton (2-3, 2-1 HCAC) at Hanover (1-4, 1-2), 1:30 p.m.: Roberson has quietly built some impressive stats, catching nine passes per game, which is sixth best in the country. On Sept. 23, he became the first Bluffton receiver ever to top the 3,000-yard receiving mark in the Beavers' 35-10 victory over Mount St. Joseph. This season, he has reeled in 45 passes for 518 yards, averaging 103.6 receiving yards per contest.