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Redshirt freshman Joe Philipp leads the G-MAC with six field goals this season. (Photo: Ryan Kelly Murphy | Courtesy)

In a clash between G-MAC heavyweights last Saturday, the Ohio Dominican Panthers took advantage of Hillsdale’s miscues to edge the Chargers, 41-27. 

The Panthers (3-3) improved to 3-0 in the G-MAC and dropped the Chargers (3-3) to 1-1 in the conference.

Hillsdale and Ohio Dominican matched up evenly in terms of offensive production, but the Panthers turned two Chargers’ turnovers into 14 points, the final margin between the two teams.

“As an offensive unit we must do a better job at protecting the ball,” junior quarterback Chance Stewart said. “That falls on all of us, from fumbles to interceptions. It’s a priority for us and we’ll get it fixed. The defense has been doing a great job keeping us in games.”

Ohio Dominican didn’t turn the ball over, and Hillsdale’s turnover differential is now minus-four this season. In six games, the Chargers have scored just 10 points off the five turnovers they’ve created and have allowed 42 points as a result of their nine turnovers.

“It’s something we work on, it just hasn’t been going our way,” head coach Keith Otterbein said. “If you look at the minus-four turnover ratio with the tight games we’ve been in, that’s why we’re 3-3 and not better.”

“Our defense has been really close in a lot of games,” sophomore defensive back Jason McDonough said. “We’ve been really close to making that turnover play and finishing the job. The next few weeks we’re really trying to turn the corner and make those plays.”

With the wind swirling all afternoon in Columbus, Ohio, the Panthers and Chargers went back-and-forth until Ohio Dominican put the game out of reach with a touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

“There was never a time where we put pressure on Ohio Dominican,” Otterbein said. “We were always chasing them. We didn’t come up with the drive where we could have gone ahead and put pressure on them.”

Hillsdale tied the game at 13 just before halftime thanks to a 36-yard field goal from redshirt freshman kicker Joe Philipp.

“That two-minute drive, we’ve been pretty good at it,” Otterbein said. “I was really pleased with that, to get it to a tie score at half.”

Philipp made both of his field goal attempts and all three extra points. He has made six of his eight field goal tries this season and 23 of 24 extra points. His six field goals lead all G-MAC kickers. Philipp said his success is partly due to the chemistry among the special teams unit.

“I have a great long snapper in [senior] Danny Drummond and a great holder in [senior] Timmy Mills,” Philipp said. “With those guys, it’s been going pretty smooth so far.”

The Chargers tied the Panthers at 20 in the third quarter and 27 in the fourth quarter, but never had the lead.

Sophomore running back David Graham enjoyed perhaps the best game of his collegiate career, rushing for three touchdowns while carrying the ball 20 times for 109 yards. He also caught three passes out of the backfield for 58 yards.

“We did very well setting ourselves up to score,” Graham said. “I just happened to be the one that scored on those plays. The offense got us down to the 10 most of the time, and I just had to weave my way through to the end zone.”

Graham is tied for the G-MAC lead with 10 touchdown rushes this season. Through six contests, he’s used a combination of strength and finesse to average 5.7 yards per carry, 88.5 rushing yards per game, and 124 all-purpose yards per game.

“You can’t try to be too much of one thing,” Graham said. “I try to balance myself. I still have a lot to work on, but I think I’ve got a little power and a little patience as a runner.” 

Stewart completed 22 of 36 passes for 296 yards with one interception. For the first time this season, he did not throw or run for a touchdown.

Junior wide receiver Trey Brock tied a career-high with 13 receptions. He piled up 175 yards receiving, and is now averaging 127.8 receiving yards per game, the best in the G-MAC among wide receivers. Brock has a simple approach that has led to his continued success this year.

“They call the play, I run the route, Chance throws me the ball, and I try to make plays after the catch,” he said.

Brock said finishing off drives is something the offense can improve.

“We should have capitalized on opportunities down on the goal line,” he said. “We need to score touchdowns instead of field goals.”

The Chargers’ defense began the day as the best third down unit in the conference, limiting opponents to a 26 percent conversion rate through five games. The Panthers, however, converted seven of 13 third down attempts against Hillsdale.

“We put a lot of emphasis on third downs. We’re always working on that,” Otterbein said. “That becomes critical on both sides of the ball. We’ve got to be really good on both sides on third down.”

Hillsdale’s defense struggled to get into the Ohio Dominican backfield, recording only one tackle for loss and no sacks.

“We just couldn’t make the right play at the right time,” Otterbein said. “I’ll give them credit, they’re a good football team. They protected their quarterback pretty well. Pressuring the quarterback helps your pass defense. You can’t allow the quarterback to stand back there in the pocket forever.”

McDonough had a career day, notching 14 total tackles. He also broke up a pass in the secondary. He said knowing his role and staying focused on the next play has allowed him to make an impact in his first year as a starter.

“It’s just about focusing on each rep in practice and in games,” McDonough said. “I’m just trying to be one-eleventh of our defense and do my job. We came up short on Saturday and a couple other times this year, but we’re still growing and I’m still growing as a player also.”

Junior defensive back Wyatt Batdorff added nine tackles, pushing his team-leading total to 49 this season.

Things don’t get any easier for the Chargers’ defense moving forward. The University of Findlay visits Hillsdale this Saturday, Oct. 14. The Oilers boast the G-MAC’s top scoring offense, averaging 46.8 points per game. Findlay (5-1), along with Ohio Dominican, is unbeaten in the conference. Last season, the Oilers defeated Hillsdale 46-28.

On the defensive side, only Findlay has allowed fewer points and yards than the Chargers this season. Hillsdale’s rush defense is the conference’s best, limiting opponents to 111.5 yards on the ground per game. That will be put to the test, as Findlay nets nearly 300 rushing yards per game.

ESPN3 will be at Frank “Muddy” Waters Stadium to broadcast the matchup online, the first time an ESPN station will cover a Chargers football game in school history. Kickoff on Saturday is at 1:00 p.m.

“We can definitely show everyone that our losses were flukes,” Graham said. “We could have won every single game. I think we’ll show everyone what we’re made of.”

Stewart called the game this weekend the most important of the year so far.

“Biggest game of the season,” Stewart said. “Everyone knows it. Everything we set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year is still attainable. We just have to take care of business this week.”