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David Graham hurdles a defender during Hills­dale’s second-round playoff game against Notre Dame College last November. Graham has rushed for 34 touch­downs in the past two seasons. (Picture: S. Nathaniel Grime | Col­legian)

The Hillsdale College Chargers will kick off their 127th season of football on Sat­urday at 1 p.m. when they host the Michigan Tech Uni­versity Huskies. Entering their third season in the Great Midwest Ath­letic Con­ference, the Chargers are defending cham­pions after going 8 – 0 against con­ference oppo­nents in 2018.

The Huskies were one of three non-con­ference teams to defeat Hillsdale last year, however, when they squeaked out a double-overtime, 31 – 30 win in week two of the 2018 season. That game was played in the Upper Peninsula at Michigan Tech, however. This year, the matchup occurs at Frank “Muddy” Waters Stadium in Hillsdale, where the Chargers went 5 – 0 last season.

Although the No. 19 Chargers are favored to repeat in 2019 as G‑MAC cham­pions according to a pre­season coaches poll, Team 127 will feature a new look in what was a con­ference-best passing attack a year ago.

Red­shirt freshman Luke Keller won the starting quar­terback position in training camp, and his top target in the passing game will be junior wide receiver K.J. Maloney, who was second on the team in 2018 in recep­tions and receiving yards to Trey Brock, who shat­tered every program receiving record in his final year at Hillsdale.

Keller replaces Chance Stewart at quar­terback, who holds program records for passing yards and touch­downs after a bril­liant four-year career. Despite not taking a single snap in his true freshman season, Keller is con­fident that when his college football career begins on Sat­urday, he’ll be ready to go. Head coach Keith Otterbein, who, along with his coaching staff, settled on Keller to lead the offense, agrees.

“I was really pleased with the level that the guys com­peted at,” Otterbein said. “At some point, you just pick a guy. It was simply level of play [Keller] was per­forming at.”

Last season, the Huskies allowed the second-most passing yards per game in the Great Lakes Inter­col­le­giate Ath­letic Con­ference, so the matchup may be favorable to Keller in getting off to a good start. Michigan Tech also allowed nearly 200 yards on the ground per game in 2018, which plays into the hands of senior running back David Graham.

After rushing for more than 1,000 yards in his sophomore season, Graham just missed the century mark again in 2018, when he rushed for 939 yards and 16 touch­downs. Graham enters 2019 just 10 yards shy of 2,000 for his col­le­giate career, and is ninth all-time in program history in total rushing yards. His 35 career rushing touch­downs are tied for eighth-most in program history.

“I do have those per­sonal goals. I’d like to reach top five, top three,” Graham said. “But I can’t let that get in the way of our team goals. I’m just focused on winning games. Per­sonal goals are second.”

Con­ference play begins in week three this year for Hillsdale, but two non-con­ference games to begin the season are critical for the Chargers’ regional ranking. Hillsdale plays on the road against the Uni­versity of Indi­anapolis next week, a team that also beat the Chargers last year.

“It all just happens as it unfolds, and I think that’s one thing our kids have been very good at [in the past], and I would not antic­ipate any­thing dif­ferent from this group,” Otterbein said. “Staying in the moment — playing in the moment, not becoming flus­tered or dis­tracted — is a key to success this year.”