The Hillsdale College football team began its first season in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference with a 19-11 win in Erie, Pennsylvania, on Saturday.
In the first meeting between the two teams in nearly 10 years, the Chargers defeated Mercyhurst University, improving their all-time record to 8-3 against the Lakers.
In what could be described as a defensive struggle, neither team’s offense was able to find enough consistency to swing the advantage clearly to one side or another.
The Chargers gained 17 first downs to the Lakers’ 16. Hillsdale netted 368 total yards of offense, which was just 20 more than Mercyhurst’s 348.
Hillsdale also edged the Lakers in time of possession by a slim margin, controlling the ball for just over 31 of the 60 minutes.
Neither team was particularly efficient on third downs — Hillsdale converted five of 14 third-down opportunities, while Mercyhurst converted just two of 12.
“We blitzed a lot on third downs. Going into the game, we knew they would try to pass a lot on third downs,” sophomore cornerback Merrick Canada said. “Credit goes to the defensive line for getting pressure on the quarterback and also to the the defensive backs for batting passes down and having good coverage.”
Halfway through the fourth quarter, the Chargers led 19-11, but the statistics were nearly split down the middle. In the end, a defensive stand at the goal line made the difference.
With less than five minutes left in the game, the Lakers drove the ball more than 60 yards to set up 1st-and-goal with a chance to tie the game.
As it had all game, Hillsdale’s defense came up big.
On 3rd-and-goal, senior defensive lineman Matthew Schrzan sacked Mercyhurst quarterback Doug Altavilla to set up 4th-and-goal from the 12-yard line. The sack was Schrzan’s second of the game.
On 4th-and-goal with the game on the line, sophomore cornerback Jason McDonough intercepted Altavilla’s pass with less than a minute left on the clock. The Chargers’ offense only had to kneel the ball twice to put the finishing touches on the season-opening victory.
“I give all the credit in the world to the defense,” junior quarterback Chance Stewart said. “They kept us in the game the whole day. It was an ugly win, but the defense came up big for us. Winning on the road in college football is hard, so anytime we can get a win, we’ll take it.”
The Lakers got the ball to begin the game, taking a 3-0 lead after a 10-play, 72-yard opening drive. The Chargers responded with three points of their own on their second drive of the afternoon. The field goal was redshirt freshman Joe Phillip’s first career collegiate points.
Early in the second quarter, the Lakers set up for a 24-yard field goal that would have given them a 6-3 lead. Instead, senior defensive back Spencer Nehls blocked the kick, keeping the game square.
Head coach Keith Otterbein said the blocked field goal was an “absolute momentum changer.”
The momentum seemed to shift in Hillsdale’s favor indeed, as the game’s first touchdown came toward the end of the first half, when Stewart connected with junior wide receiver Trey Brock for a five-yard score, putting the Chargers ahead 9-3.
Stewart’s first touchdown pass of the season completed Hillsdale’s longest drive of the afternoon, a 12-play, 79-yard sequence. The quarterback finished the game with 198 passing yards, completing 17 of 33 attempts, along with one touchdown and one interception. Despite the final score, he was underwhelmed with the offense’s performance as a whole.
“We never really got into a rhythm,” Stewart said of the offense. “When I picture our offense, I picture more than 19 points a game.”
Phillip added another field goal seconds before halftime to put the Chargers ahead 12-3. The Hillsdale native finished the day 2-for-2 on field goals and 1-for-2 on extra-point attempts.
On the Chargers’ second drive of the second half, running back David Graham, making his first collegiate start, scored from two yards out for his first collegiate touchdown.
Graham finished the day with 84 yards on 18 rushing attempts and caught two passes for 36 yards. Otterbein was pleased with the sophomore’s performance.
“There’s certain guys that get the game and understand the game, and Graham is a natural football player,” he said.
Otterbein went on to say Graham would still have a role in the offense when 2016 honorable mention all-GLIAC junior running back Joe Reverman returns from injury later this season.
Graham’s touchdown increased the Chargers’ lead to 19-3.
The scoring drive was highlighted by a 52-yard completion from Stewart to Brock on a 3rd-and-6, which brought Hillsdale’s offense into the Lakers’ red zone.
“He really helps to stretch the field,” Stewart said of Brock. “Teams have to keep an eye on him at all times, so it allows guys like Timmy Mills and Austin Sandusky to also get open.”
The 2016 honorable mention All-American wide receiver picked up where he left off last season, hauling in nine passes for a total of 124 yards, along with his second-quarter touchdown.
Mercyhurst then responded with a touchdown drive of their own. Altavilla connected with Lakers’ wide receiver Brad Nowak for a 32-yard strike and a two-point conversion to trim Hillsdale’s lead to 19-11.
Neither team scored in the final quarter. Two drives before McDonough’s game-sealing interception, the Lakers failed to convert a 4th-and-1 attempt at the Chargers’ 35-yard line, turning the ball back over to the Hillsdale offense.
The Chargers return to town this weekend for their home opener on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 1:00 p.m. They’ll host Michigan Tech University, which is also 1-0 on the season.
“They’ve always been a physical, tough, hard-nosed football team,” Otterbein said of Michigan Tech. “They’ll want to establish the run, they’re good at play-action, and they’re really good at picking plays to take shots and go deep and challenge you that way.”
The Huskies are a familiar opponent, as they are former conference rivals with the Chargers when both schools were part of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Last September, Hillsdale defeated Michigan Tech, 51-24.