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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.”