Wheaton College and North Central College faced each other in another bitter rivalry matchup. This was the 100th meeting of the two teams, and fans from both teams attended in droves despite the cool, rainy weather that persisted throughout the night.
Going into the game, the North Central Cardinals were ranked No. 5 on D3football.com’s ranking of DIII football teams. Wheaton was the No. 21 ranked team in DIII football in the same list, so that made the Thunder football team the underdogs. Sound like a historic match-up waiting to happen? That it was.
Barely two minutes into the first quarter, Wheaton made it clear that they were not going to give up the Little Brass Bell without a fight. After a holding penalty, North Central was thinking that they could stop the Thunder offense on a first and 20 play, but senior Jaelin Goldsmith left them all behind with a 71-yard run all the way to the endzone. The small, away-fan section was full of Thunder fans, all on their feet, booming with cheers after this early lead.
The game had barely begun, and the strong performance by Wheaton had just started. After holding North Central to a 38-yard field goal, the score was 7-3. Senior quarterback Curtis McWilliams led his offense on an almost four-minute drive that ended in a one-yard touchdown run by sophomore Tae’shawn Gibbs.
Wheaton extended their lead to 14-3, and the Cardinals fans were stunned and quiet. After a field goal by North Central, Wheaton got two plays in before the start of the second quarter. Both teams had offensive drives resulting in three points so that at 9:06 remaining in the half, the score was 17-9 in Wheaton’s favor. Starting at their own 20-yard line, Wheaton’s offense took the field once more. McWilliams got the snap, and he threw to senior Carter Roberts wide open behind North Central’s secondary.
Roberts outran the Cardinal defense all the way to the endzone for an 80-yard touchdown reception. If you can believe it, that was not even half of the drama of the second quarter. Barely a minute later, the Wheaton defense sacked North Central’s quarterback for a loss of 13-yards, but, in the midst of the Thunder fans’ cheers, a North Central player was lying on the ground in pain, yellow penalty flag across the field from him near the Cardinal sideline. Wheaton and North Central players knelt as they waited for the injured Cardinal to be taken off the field. As he was helped off the field, the head referee said over the loudspeaker, “…15-yard penalty and that is an automatic first down. [Defense] #14 is disqualified from the remainder of the game.”
The Cardinal fans erupted in some of their loudest cheers of the night as Wheaton’s fans were confused. The referee’s mic cut out the first part of the call, and neither team’s website clarifies what the call actually was in their play-by-play summaries. The North Central commentators thought the hit was a little low, but they were audibly surprised when defensive back #14, senior Kyle Fox, was disqualified from the game.
The drive should have ended with a 13-yard loss on third down and would have forced the Cardinals to punt, but after the personal foul penalty and ejection, North Central drove all the way down the field and scored a touchdown. The longest, most time-consuming drive of the game put North Central within eight points.
The following drive, Wheaton played as if the momentum had not changed in the slightest. Eight plays, 81 yards and not even three minutes later, McWilliams’ three-yard touchdown run extended Wheaton’s lead again. North Central would score another field goal before the end of the half; 31-23 was the score at half-time.
Cardinal fans walked out of their home-field stadium as a chilly drizzle sprinkled dedicated fans. The rain was falling steadily as the teams returned to the field, and Wheaton prepared to receive the second half kickoff. Sitting in the Thunder fan section, we had jackets, blankets and umbrellas over our heads, but hope and excitement in our hearts as we watched Wheaton’s offense run onto the field to start a drive at their own 23-yard line.
We took to our feet as we watched senior Jacob Cretin break through a hole and charge down the field. The rain seemed irrelevant to the fans as he crossed into the endzone after a 77-yard run. Just like that, Wheaton was up 38-23, and the Thunder fans were on their feet.
North Central had a good-looking 14-yard pass play before Wheaton sacked the Cardinal quarterback two times in a row. The 11- yard completion on thirdand- 20 was not enough, and the Thunder had forced a Cardinal punt.
After a punt by Wheaton, the Cardinal offense took the field again as the rain continued. Before we knew it, the Cardinals were facing another third down. The quarterback looked and looked for an open receiver, but the Thunder’s coverage was too strong. He ran past the line of scrimmage before initiating a quarterback slide. Junior defensive back Daniel Herber was already running on the wet turf to tackle the Cardinal quarterback, but as he ducked his head, his helmet met the helmet of the already sliding Cardinal quarterback. The result was another 15-yard penalty, and an automatic first down. Herber was disqualified for the remainder of the game. This time Wheaton still stopped the Cardinal offense and forced another punt. The score remained 38-23.
The rain lightened to a sprinkle as the third quarter came to a close with no change in the score of the game. Wheaton fans began to chatter about the probable chance that the Little Brass Bell would stay in the Thunder’s possession.
That conversation turned to exclamations when senior Jacob Killeen caught an interception to start off the final quarter of the game. Making good use of the turnover, Wheaton drove down the field and into the endzone, thanks to a threeyard rush by senior Luke Van Dyke, over the course of nearly seven minutes.
With eight minutes left, the Cardinals received the kickoff and drove down the field in an effort to make up some of the 15-point deficit. Despite strong Wheaton defensive efforts, the Cardinals scored seven points.
With six minutes left in the game and possession of the football, the Wheaton offense had a chance to end North Central’s chances of winning. The Thunder drove down all the way to the North Central 16 yard line, and fans watched on three-and-nine, fingers crossed, hoping that Wheaton could convert. McWilliams’ pass landed in the hands of Pace for another Wheaton touchdown. Fans could feel it in the crisp air; victory was so close.
But North Central had the ball. While a three-minute, 22-point comeback was improbable; nothing was impossible. After a few first downs, North Central were driving quickly. Then a three-yard completion looked to be another gain by the Cardinals before senior Tyler Sigler forced a fumble.
The Wheaton student sections started to empty out of the stands and onto the track. After two rushes of seven yards and 15 yards respectively by Cretin, Wheaton took two knees. As the clock wound down, Wheaton fans stormed the field.
The student section rallied around the Wheaton football players in Benedetti- Wehrli stadium as they hoisted the Little Brass Bell into the air. As a Wheaton sports fan and athlete myself, this game was a huge success for Wheaton athletics and fans alike. The rain, the predictions, the rankings, the doubts — none of it stopped Wheaton from playing to win.
The Wheaton Football team will host North Park University Oct. 6 at 1p.m. for the 2018 Wheaton Homecoming game.