WILMINGTON, Ohio – Throughout the months of July and August, the Wilmington College Office of Athletic Communications, through the lens of Director Mitch Blankespoor, is going to revisit some of its favorite memories of each sport throughout the 2019-20 academic year.
Today's entry will be memories for the football season.
The first memory that comes to mind is the season-opener against Olivet College on Sept. 7. Despite knowing I'll be working very late into the night and hours of the early morning, the atmosphere of night games is something special. Williams Stadium and Townsend Field did not disappoint on that night. A near capacity crowd along with a gorgeous Southwest Ohio evening made way for a great NCAA Division III football game.
The defense got a stop on the first possession of the game, and junior quarterback Kyle Barrett capped off a 12-play, 90-yard drive with a sneak on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Up 7-0, the Quaker defense forced another Comet punt, and after both teams fumbled, Wilmington's offense drove deep into Comet territory once again. The drive stalled, and Tyler Butcher converted a 39-yard field goal to put the hosts up 10-0.
On Olivet's very next play from scrimmage, Brandon Lemley forced and recovered a fumble, setting up Wilmington with prime chance to add to its lead. This time, however, the Quakers couldn't take advantage as a fourth down pass fell to the turf. Olivet took over and drove into Wilmington territory late in the first half. On a 2nd-and-2 from the 10-yard line, cornerback Que Taylor blew up a screen pass, but stayed down after a stinger.
That moment I'll remember for a long time. The entire stadium went quiet as WC's athletic training staff, led by Head Athletic Trainer Brian Dykhuizen, attended to Taylor. He would eventually be sent to the hospital and make a full recovery, missing only a couple games. The air and energy left the stadium during the delay, and Olivet capitalized, scoring a touchdown in the waning seconds of the half.
Neither team got into the red zone in the third quarter, but that would change in the fourth quarter. The Comets, who would go on to start the season 6-0, fed the ball to running back Noah McMinn six consecutive times that led to the go-ahead score. Trailing 13-10 for the first time, Wilmington was forced to punt near midfield, and McMinn would be featured heavily on Olivet's next drive. The senior carried the ball eight consecutive times, setting up a 4th-and-goal from the six yards out with 2:19 to play. Because of a missed extra point earlier in the game, a field goal would only have put the visitors up by six.
Olivet elected to go the touchdown, and it worked as the Comets went to the air for a touchdown.
Trailing 20-10, Wilmington's offense reignited, and consecutive long completions from Barrett to Ace Taylor for a touchdown. The 6-play, 64-yard drive took just over a minute, leaving 45 seconds left for a potential onside kick recovery.
Unfortunately, the Comets recovered and two kneel downs ended the game.
Two things stuck out to me in this game. First, the Wilmington team I saw in 2018 would not have made that drive and attempt to comeback in the game. Second, the defense allowing less than 300 total yards and less than four yards per carry. Both of those were big improvements from the previous season.
The second, and probably most memorable day of the season and academic year, was the Homecoming Weekend victory over Ohio Northern University. Another great atmosphere, this one in my favorite college football setting – a fall afternoon. On the afternoon of Sept. 21, the Quakers' would achieve something the program hadn't in 63 years – defeating Ohio Northern.
From the opening kickoff, the Wilmington offense couldn't be stopped. I haven't seen a better half of offensive football live in my nearly decade career covering NCAA Division III athletics. The Quakers scored touchdowns on their first four drives. Kyle Barrett scored with his feet on the first and found Itika Wynn Jr. and Luke Richardson for the next two. The Polar Bears, who scored on their first drive, added a field goal midway through the second quarter to get within 11, but Gino Hinton scampered 65 yards for a score three plays later, giving WC a 28-10 lead.
Perhaps the only bad thing that happened in the entire first half for the hosts was a missed field goal in the final seconds. That mishap, though I remember it seeming small at the time, proved to be pivotal later in the contest.
The beginning of the second half played out much like the first – offense's going up and down the field. After ONU's opening drive that ended with six consecutive completions and a touchdown, the Polar Bears fed All-American running back Anthony McFadden for a score on their second drive. Fortunately, a Wilmington touchdown was sandwiched in between as Barrett connected with Wynn Jr. for the second time.
At this point, the game in my head was drawing parallels to the 74-68 triple overtime contest I worked while a graduate assistant at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. That thought would hold for mere minutes, however, as both defenses stood up midway through the third quarter. Up 35-24, Wilmington's offense turned the ball over for the first time as Kyle Barrett was sacked and fumbled. On the very next play from scrimmage, however, Dusty Lykins intercepted an Anthony McFadden pass, giving the hosts the ball back.
The Quakers were forced to punt on the ensuing drive, and as the fourth quarter began, ONU went back to the air for a touchdown. Another Wilmington drive yielded a punt, and McFadden threw yet another touchdown, giving the visitors their first lead (38-35) midway through the fourth quarter.
The Wilmington offense, for the first time in three drives, got into Ohio Northern territory thanks to long pass completions to Richardson and Wynn Jr. A false start, two incompletions and a short reception setup 4th-and-14 from the 35-yard line. Ace Taylor was open on a post, but failed to make the sliding catch. The Polar Bears took over, looking to burn away the final 4:21.
The Quakers had been in this position several times over the past couple of years – trailing by a score or less in the final five minutes needing a stop, but failed to achieve one. This game was different. The defense stepped up, thanks to a great open-field tackle from Tavion Bryant I still remember. On 3rd-and-6, ONU elected to throw, and despite the completion, Ameer Jackson made another spectacular open-field tackle, forcing a punt. After a holding penalty, Wilmington had 89 yards to go in 2:12. What happened on that drive will be remembered for a LONG time.
Two completions to Ace Taylor began the drive, but the hosts had a 4th-and-1 to convert after Barrett ran for no gain. After a timeout, Barrett dropped back to pass, needing a yard to continue the game. To this day, I'm not sure how the junior moved the chains. He seemed to run about 15-20 yards to gain just three, slithering through two Polar Bear defenders and diving forward for the first down. On the very next play, Barrett connected with Richardson for a 40-yard pass, getting the ball over midfield with less than a minute to play.
Then came the play I'll most remember from this game – a story of redemption. On the drive before, Ace Taylor had a first-down grab in his hands but couldn't coral it sliding to the Williams Stadium turf.
The sophomore wide receiver would make up for that and more, hauling in a 29-yard, over-the-shoulder catch while being interfered with. On the very next play, Barrett found Wynn Jr. over the middle for the game-winning touchdown.
The rollercoaster of emotions at Williams Stadium that afternoon was quite the ride. Head Coach Bryan Moore told me after the game that he was very impressed with his team's emotional maturity during that game, a program-defining win and a career-defining win for Moore.
Wilmington would go on to add two more wins – vs. Capital University on Senior Day and at Otterbein University – to conclude the season with a 3-7 overall record, the program's best season in a decade.