Despite waiting through a halftime that took longer than the game itself, the Hillsdale College Chargers defeated the Mercyhurst University Lakers in a gritty, 14 – 9 victory on Saturday at Frank “Muddy” Waters Stadium. The win is the Chargers’ eighth in a row against Mercyhurst, extending a head-to-head winning streak that began in 2002. This also marks the second consecutive year Hillsdale has bested the Lakers in week one of the season to begin the year 1 – 0.
The Chargers headed into the tunnel after the first half with a 7 – 3 lead, but lightning and tornado warnings kept them in the locker room for two-and-a-half hours before they returned to the field to begin the second half.
“The kids did a nice job of relaxing. They took their pads off, took their shoes off, but didn’t lose focus,” head coach Keith Otterbein said of the unorthodox halftime. “The fact those two football teams went in and spent two-and-a-half hours doing nothing and then came back out and played at a level that they did is a testament to both teams and the focus that they had.”
The Chargers began the third quarter strong indeed, with a nine-play, 81-yard scoring drive completed by a 6-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Chance Stewart to sophomore wide receiver Alexander Giampietro. The extra point extended Hillsdale’s lead to 14 – 3.
Stewart finished the game an efficient 20-for-29 with 205 yards passing. Giampietro led the receiving unit with a career-high six catches and 88 yards. Sophomore wide receiver K.J. Maloney followed with five receptions for 55 yards. Giampietro and Maloney’s performances were even bigger in light of senior Trey Brock’s early exit from the game. Brock caught one pass on the Chargers’ first drive of the game, but spent the rest of the night on the sidelines after experiencing discomfort in his side.
“When it comes to K.J. or Alex, or [senior wide receiver] Austin Sandusky, guys like that really have to step up, and they did,” Stewart said. “It was a really big contribution from everybody. Without Trey, we needed a lot of people to come together.”
The Chargers’ first and only other touchdown came on their first offensive series of the night. Stewart guided the offense 48 yards to the end zone in 11 plays, converting three third downs during the series. After a 12-yard completion to Maloney on third down set up 1st-and-goal for Hillsdale from the two yard line, junior running back Christian Shepler rushed for a 2-yard touchdown on the next play to give the Chargers a lead they would not relinquish.
Mercyhurst had jumped out to an early 3 – 0 lead thanks to a field goal on its first drive of the game. Holding the Lakers to three points was a victory for the Chargers’ defense, however, since the Lakers had 1st-and-goal from the four yard line earlier in the drive.
After Hillsdale took a 7 – 3 lead, the Lakers again entered the red zone on their next possession and threatened to regain the lead.
Hillsdale’s defense made another stand, allowing only five yards on three straight rushing attempts to set up 4th-and-goal from the one yard line. Instead of running the ball for a fourth consecutive play, the Lakers elected to pass.
The play broke down, and an ill-advised throw ended up in the hands of junior linebacker Dan Shanley, who intercepted the pass in the end zone, ending the scoring threat and turning the ball back over to the Chargers’ offense.
“I was reading the quarterback’s eyes and could tell that he was kind of in a panic,” Shanley said. “He didn’t really have any open receivers. I saw him look back toward their fullback who was right in my zone. I got to my spot and just made a play on the ball.”
The Chargers nearly turned the interception into points, but sophomore kicker Joe Philipp narrowly missed a 35-yard field goal on the ensuing drive.
Both defenses settled in for the rest of the quarter, and allowed only 21 yards combined on the final five drives of the first half, compared to 244 yards from scrimmage in the game’s first four series.
“After those first couple of drives, we settled in,” Shanley said of Hillsdale’s defensive unit. “The first couple of drives we had a tough time getting off on third down, but once we settled down, we figured out what they were going to do, and battled their game plan and what they were throwing at us.”
After the Chargers extended their lead to two scores to begin the second half, both teams were held scoreless until the first first play of the fourth quarter, when the Lakers trimmed Hillsdale’s lead to 14 – 9 on a 16-yard touchdown pass.
The Chargers forced two punts and a turnover on downs in Mercyhurst’s final three possessions of the game to seal the victory.
Hillsdale’s defensive grit in the fourth quarter was just the conclusion of a pivotal performance all night long. The longest play from scrimmage the Chargers allowed was the 16-yard touchdown, and Mercyhurst converted only four of 14 third down attempts and one of three fourth down attempts. The Lakers managed just nine points despite having the ball inside Hillsdale’s 10 yard line three times.
The Chargers didn’t display as much firepower on offense as they believe they are capable of, but in the end, they weathered the storm in more ways than one to come out on top.
“It was opening week. When it comes down to it, my job is to get us into the best play possible and to get us into the best situation possible to win the football game,” Stewart said. “At the end of the day, there are a lot of things I need to work on, but we’re 1 – 0.”
The Chargers face a challenging task this weekend when they travel to the Upper Peninsula to play Michigan Tech University. Hillsdale defeated Tech at home last season, 31 – 27. Kickoff on Saturday is at 1 p.m.