When the clock hits zero, if your team has more points than the other then you win. It does not matter how pretty it was.
It especially does not matter if your game-winning kick was blocked and somehow spiraled through the uprights perpendicular to the ground.
Senior kicker Sam Cote’s 29-yard field goal attempt was tipped by a North Central defender, but still found its way through the goal posts to give Wheaton the 34-31 and the rightful claim to the Little Brass Bell.
Coach Mike Swider had one all-encompassing message in the chaos that followed: “This one’s for Wheaton football.”
The win over North Central came on the heels of a big Thunder road win in the CCIW over Millikin on Oct. 18. With sophomore Andrew Bowers, who had started the previous two games under center, out with a concussion, fellow sophomore quarterback Johnny Peltz got the start in Decatur. And Peltz more than filled the role admirably. He got the Thunder on the board in the first with a 28-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Keegan Kemp and then added a touchdown run of his own before halftime. Senior running back Jesse Geary scored a couple of fourth quarter touchdowns and the defense held Millikin to only a second quarter field goal for the 28-3 final. Junior linebacker Mikey Swider led the way with 17 tackles and was named CCIW defensive player of the week for his efforts. Peltz was 13-23 for 156 yards through the air and was one of two 100-yard rushers on the day for Wheaton with 112. Geary ran 16 times for 103 yards and two touchdowns.
The win set up the rivalry game on Saturday against North Central at McCully Stadium. Both Wheaton and North Central went into the night undefeated in the CCIW and ranked 11th and 12th respectively in D3football.com’s rankings. Aside from reclaiming the Bell from the Cardinals, the Thunder were also looking to avenge a 35-16 loss from a year ago that kept the Thunder 8-2 and out of the playoffs for the third consecutive year. With a win, Wheaton would be in great position to win the CCIW and give the senior class their first postseason appearance.
North Central’s explosive run-heavy offense gave Wheaton fits early on, particularly junior running back Oshayne Brown. Brown rushed for over 100 yards before halftime and finished with 145 and two touchdowns. But the Peltz-led Thunder offense kept in step with the Cardinals throughout, and even had a 31-16 lead going into the fourth quarter. A big part of the high level of production was thanks to a little bit of third down wizardry by the young quarterback; Wheaton was 9-12 on third downs on the night.
In the fourth, the lead vanished as North Central quarterback Dylan Warden, who had done little passing the ball up until this point, led a long drive that culminated in a touchdown and a two point conversion, and then connected on a 59-yard touchdown pass on fourth and nine the next possession to tie the game at 31.
That put the game back in the hands of the young signal caller with just under five minutes left. Peltz converted a third and five and a fourth and one to keep the drive going and got the ball well into Cote’s range with just three seconds left. Cote’s leg and a little bit of good fortune took care of the rest.
As soon as the ball went through the uprights, seniors Jared Todd and Luke Thorson grabbed the Bell and were mobbed by the Thunder players, coaches and fans at midfield. It was not until several hours after the final whistle that the mob began to dissipate.
“It was one for the ages,” Swider said. “I think you had to be to really feel what happened.”
All of the talk post-game revolved around the heroic performance of the sophomore quarterback making his second collegiate start, and deservedly so. Johnny Peltz finished 22-28 with 236 yards and a pair of touchdown tosses and was also the Thunder’s leading rusher with 86 yards on 22 carries. Beyond the stats, Peltz looked mature beyond his years in the pocket, showing composure in the face of pressure, taking hits, making throws on the run and hitting his receivers between the numbers in key situations.
But it was the offensive line that got all the praise from the head coach.
“Our offensive line absolutely mauled them,” Swider said. “It was a great demonstration of tough guys playing hard.”
The big men opened up holes for everyone, as four different rushers accounted for 228 yards on the ground. As a whole the offense outgained the Cardinals 464 to 399.
Keegan Kemp accounted for 150 yards from scrimmage with a rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown. Luke Thorson had four catches for 67 yards.
As for the defense, gutsy would be a good word to describe them. They may have allowed 31 points but there was no shame in that total considering North Central had averaged 44 points a game before Saturday night. The coaching staff put every effort into stopping North Central’s star receiver Peter Sorenson and as a result allowed 220 yards on the ground, but Sorenson had only one catch and more importantly, the Thunder came away with the win. Junior linebacker Logan McRae led the way with 12 tackles and ju nior corner Alex Mendez picked off his third pass of the season, but the senior safety and captain Mitch Warren stole the show. After missing the first six games with a torn ACL, and still more than a little bit hobbled, Warren recorded six tackles in his season debut. No news yet on whether or not he plans to play this week.
The win somehow pushes the 7-0 Thunder from 11th to 13th in D3football.com’s latest polls, but they are certainly sitting comfortably in the CCIW at 4-0. They have an equally tough matchup on Saturday as they travel to Elmhurst to take on the equally undefeated in conference Blue Jays. The winner of the game will likely finish the season as CCIW champions. Kickoff will be at 1 p.m. The stream for the game can be accessed through Wheaton’s athletics website.