The Hillsdale College Chargers secured their first winning season since 2012 with a 45 – 7 victory over Malone University on Saturday. The win improved Hillsdale’s record to 6 – 4 and 4 – 2 in the conference.
On a dreary, wet Senior Day, the Chargers dominated the contest from the opening kickoff, building a 31 – 0 lead by halftime.
“I thought we had a great week of practice,” head coach Keith Otterbein said. “Tremendous effort, intensity, attention to detail, fun, and enthusiasm. I anticipated playing well.”
Junior quarterback Chance Stewart completed 17 of 25 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed the ball five times for 24 yards and a touchdown, his sixth rushing score this season. Four of those touchdown rushes have been quarterback sneaks near the goal line.
“With how big our offensive line is, getting short yards is pretty easy,” Stewart said. “[Junior tight end] Drew Zwiers does a great job giving me a push too. We take pride in knowing we can pick up the short yards.”
Stewart’s touchdown pass went to an unlikely target: senior offensive lineman Jake Bull. With a hefty lead midway through the third quarter, the Chargers lined up for a 1st-and-goal from the 1 yard line. Stewart took the snap, rolled to his right, and tossed the ball back across the field to Bull, who crossed the goal line for his first collegiate touchdown. Hillsdale’s sideline was euphoric as Bull celebrated with his teammates in the end zone.
Otterbein said the play had been added to the playbook weeks ago, but once the Chargers had the ball at the goal line with a comfortable lead on Senior Day, he knew it would be an ideal opportunity to use it.
“It got to the point where it’s Senior Day, and everybody wanted the play to happen,” Bull said. “Coach started calling plays only to the left, our running back got down to the 1-yard line, and the stars kind of aligned for it. It was a really cool moment.”
Bull, who was recruited in 2013 to play tight end at Hillsdale, has been a fixture at left tackle the previous four seasons.
“I was a little skeptical at first, because I had never played O-line, and I wanted to be at a skill position,” Bull said of the switch. “But I just embraced it, and it’s been my favorite position I’ve ever played.”
Sophomore running back David Graham rushed for two touchdowns in the first half, and now has 14 touchdown rushes this year. He finished the game with 130 yards rushing on just 19 attempts, averaging nearly seven yards per carry.
Graham also caught two passes for 52 yards. His first reception went for 22 yards on a 4th-and-10 attempt during the Chargers’ first possession of the game. The next play, he ran the ball into the end zone to open the scoring. Graham leads the team with 117.2 all-purpose yards per game.
Sophomore running back Christian Shepler enjoyed the best performance of his Hillsdale career. He carried the ball just six times, but gained 82 yards and scored two touchdowns. His second score, a 45-yard rush, was the longest of Shepler’s collegiate career.
“I think the biggest factor for any big day on the ground is the O-line,” Shepler said. “Just looking for those holes, and when you see that hole just bursting through it, making the most of it, and trying to get every yard out of every run.”
In the midst of Graham’s breakout year at running back is Shepler’s under-the-radar productivity as a complementary back. He and sophomore running back Casey O’Brien split back-up duties to Graham. Though his two touchdowns were just his second and third of the season, Shepler is averaging seven yards per carry this season.
“He’s really had a nice season,” Otterbein said. “As time has progressed, both he and Casey have really done a nice job of getting the most out of their runs. We’ve got to be very pleased with three unproven backs heading into the season and being as productive as we have been.”
Hillsdale gained 293 total yards rushing, its most in a game this season. Five of its six touchdowns came on the ground.
“Going into the week, Coach Otter was preaching the fact that we had to control the line of scrimmage,” Bull said. “That’s something we always tell ourselves before the game. We want to take their will from them. Once you get an opponent to do that, you control the game at that point.”
Bull is one of three seniors on the Chargers’ offensive line. He, along with center Danny Drummond and right guard Zach VanOrman, will be playing in their final collegiate game this weekend.
“Any good football team starts on the line of scrimmage,” Otterbein said. “Throwing the ball, running the ball, it starts with the ability to block.”
Bull, Drummond, and VanOrman have all been starting linemen since Stewart took the reigns at quarterback three years ago.
“Can’t say enough about what they’ve done for me,” Stewart said. “Just great guys that are so unselfish and willing to do whatever it takes for the team.”
Junior wide receiver Trey Brock caught five passes for 104 yards, his sixth 100+ yard game this season. He had two touchdown receptions negated, the first when he caught a deep pass out of bounds, and the second when offsetting penalties wiped out a 64-yard score.
Brock still leads G-MAC receivers with 71 receptions and 1152 yards this season. His 2,957 career receiving yards are just 135 shy of Andre Holmes’ school record. Brock will be returning for his senior year next season.
The Chargers’ defense flirted with its third shutout of the season, but the Pioneers cracked the scoreboard with a touchdown late in the fourth quarter with most of Hillsdale’s starters on the sidelines.
Senior defensive back Spencer Nehls set the tone with an interception on Malone’s second possession of the game.
“The quarterback just made a bad throw, and it flew right into my arms,” Nehls said. “Sometimes you just get put in the right place at the right time and you’re able to make some plays.”
Nehls, who missed multiple games in the middle of the season due to injury, is back on the field making an impact in his final games at Hillsdale. He said his final season has been the most enjoyable of his career.
The Pioneers did not convert a third down on offense until their fourth-quarter scoring drive. Malone went just 2-for-12 on third downs, and the Chargers improved their opponent third-down conversion rate to a league-low 28.5 percent.
“We put an extra defensive back in those third-and-long situations,” Nehls said. “That’s been a great package for us. We’ve been able to get off the field because we have so much speed on the field. We’ve really been able to execute that at a high level.”
Nehls also said the defensive line’s role in third downs has been critical.
“A huge part of our third down defense is that our defensive line has been able to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, forcing quick throws and bad decisions,” Nehls said.
Hillsdale made seven tackles for loss and junior defensive lineman Charlie Yost and sophomore defensive lineman Elliot Laisure collected sacks. Yost leads the team with four sacks this season.
One more game stands in between the Chargers and their goal of finishing the season with four consecutive victories as a tribute to its seniors for all of their years of hard work. Hillsdale travels to Painesville, Ohio on Saturday to finish its season against Lake Erie College (2 – 7, 2 – 4 G-MAC). The Storm are known for a reckless, hard-nosed brand of football. Kickoff is at 2 p.m.
“We’ve got to treat them like any other opponent,” Shepler said. “It’s not going to be touch football. They’ll come up and smack you. We’ve got to be prepared to go through some tests and make sure that we’re focused throughout the week.”