The key play in the Wittenberg-Wabash game Saturday — or one of the key plays in a game that featured more twists and turns than an episode of “Game of Thrones” — featured a local graduate who didn’t play football at all in the three previous seasons and a fifth-year senior who played few meaningful minutes until this season.
Linebacker Dustin Holmes sacked Wabash quarterback Michael Putko in the second quarter and stripped the ball. It bounced right to defensive lineman Dwight Hill, a Cincinnati LaSalle graduate who returned it for a touchdown in Wittenberg’s 21-15 victory at Edwards-Maurer Field.
A year ago, the odds of those two players combining to make that big play were about zero. Holmes, a Tecumseh graduate, played for the Tigers as a freshman in 2010 and then left school and football behind until returning to both this summer. Hill was a backup throughout this career until getting his chance to play this fall.
Coach Joe Fincham used the example of those two players in a speech to his players Sunday. He directed it at the many young players who may be stuck deep on the depth chart.
“If you think there’s a road block in front of you, you’ve just got to keep working at it,” Fincham said Tuesday. “If you’re persistent in your effort and you keep doing the things coaches preach to you, it’ll happen for you. It doesn’t happen for everyone overnight.”
After the game, Hill took little credit for the play, saying he was in the right place at the right time. He hadn’t scored a touchdown since Pee Wee football.
His best friend, cornerback Victor Banjo, was just as surprised to see the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Hill sprinting toward the end zone without a Wabash player within 20 yards of him.
“I was astonished,” Banjo said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was laughing my butt off, honestly. It was really a blessing to see him do that.”
The Tigers (8-1, 8-0) clinched a share of the North Coast Athletic Conference championship with the victory and a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs. They can win the title outright by winning at last-place Allegheny (1-8, 1-7) in Meadville, Pa., on Saturday. The playoff bracket will be announced Sunday.
Wittenberg has won or shared the conference title in five of the last six years. It’s the best stretch for the program since it won five straight titles from 1997-2001.
The Tigers beat Wabash, in part, by shutting down the Wabash passing game. Putko completed 9 of 21 passes for 102 yards with a touchdown and interception. Wittenberg broke up a season-high eight passes.
“Our back half of the defense played really well,” Fincham said. “I thought we hung in there up front. We didn’t turn into a daggone speed bump like a lot of guys.”
Wittenberg at Allegheny, 1 p.m., 89.1, 1340