Wabash stuns North Central (Ill.)
Little Giants’ last-minute TD and conversion complete comeback
WABASH, Ind. -- No. 9 Wabash rallied from a late third-quarter 28-7 deficit and scored a two-point conversion with less than a minute left to knock off No. 6-ranked North Central (Ill.). Wabash advances to play at Mount Union in the national quarterfinals in Alliance, Ohio, on Dec. 3.
Was the game the Little Giants' best comeback ever? Consider the following:
• QB Tyler Burke made his first start of the year replacing an injured Chase Belton. Two of his first three passes were intercepted and the other was incomplete.
• Wabash had 79 yards of total offense at halftime.
• After Burke hit Wes Chamblee on a 20-yard scoring strike to open the third quarter, the Cardinals immediately responded with a 62-yard drive to push the margin to 28-7 with six minutes left in the third period.
• After pulling to within 28-27 on a Jeff Bell 1-yard TD catch, coach Erik Raeburn made one of gustiest calls of his tenure as he elected to play for the win.
But getting to that play was the making of a memorable and improbable comeback against one of DIII football's best defenses.
Burke started the comeback aided by Chamblee. He found Chamblee on a 20-yard pass to get Wabash on the board and then a 33-yard scoring strike on a 4th-and-8 to cut the margin to 28-14.
Then came one of the key plays of the game for North Central. After 9- and 20-yard gains by the Cardinal rushing attack, Cody Buresh forced a Jordan Tassio fumble which was recovered by Kyle Najar at the Wabash 31.
“I thought we had a great drive going and would have put the game away,” North Central coach John Thorne said. “We had a fumble, and he never fumbles.”
The momentum had clearly shifted.
North Central forced a 4th-and-12 after a sack, but Burke found a leaping Chamblee at mid-field for the first down. Seven plays later Burke hit Horn for a 23-yard touchdown to make it 28-21.
The defense then lived up to its year-long billing and forced a quick three-and-out.
Burke opened the following series taking an 8-yard sack.
“I'd be first to tell you that I'd be nervous in that situation,” Burke said. “But the pain and the situation, I knew I had to step up. I had to do it for my team. We were just rolling and it felt like we had such momentum. I felt like we couldn't be stopped and that's just how we felt in the fourth quarter. We had all the confidence in the world we were going to score on that last drive.”
Facing a 4th-and-14 at his own 29 yard line, the senior quarterback was forced out of the pocket and took off running for a 16-yard gain and first down.
Two pass completions for 12 and 13 yards to Horn moved the ball to the Cardinal 24 before Wabash faced another fourth down. NCC jumped on the snap count and was penalized, giving Wabash another life.
Then Horn stepped up with an 18-yard catch at the 1-yard line. Burke rolled out and hit sophomore tight end Jeff Bell for the touchdown 28-27.
Then Raeburn decided to go for the win. The Little Giants came out of the huddle and shifted a portion of their line wide right. A North Central lineman was called off sides giving Wabash the ball at the two.
“The play we had called I thought we could get them,” Raeburn said of the two-point conversion attempt. “I didn't want to go to overtime because they were running ball better than we had. I thought they'd have the advantage. We decided to go for the win. I was very confident the play we had called would work.
“Then they jumped off sides and I felt like we couldn't come back to that play because they'd already seen the shift. Then the play we had called I thought would work. We tried to throw it to Wes and he basically got tackled. Then Tyler threw it to James and he tipped it to Brady just like the way we practiced it.”
The improbable Little Giant rally was complete. Wabash led 29-28 with just 52 seconds to play.
The Cardinals had a last gasp snuffed out by the Wabash defense. They got the ball on their own 18 and threatened to move into field-goal range. On six plays, North Central had moved the ball to the Wabash 36. Austin Hodges secured the win when he picked off Tyler Dicken's pass at the Wabash 24.
Burke hit 24 of 49 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns. Chamblee had a monster day with nine catches for 147 yards, two touchdowns and 215 all-purpose yards. Senior Jonathan Horn had an even bigger day with 13 catches for 152 yards, and a touchdown.
North Central piled up 208 yards rushing to Wabash's 92. But in the critical fourth quarter, the Cardinals managed just 51 yards rushing and 25 passing.
The huge Wabash advantage came in the passing game where Burke's 311 yards dwarfed the 127 yards that five Cardinal passers accumulated.
Defensively, CJ Gum collected 15 tackles with freshman Cody Buresh adding nine more.