Freshman linebacker Tyre Smith burst from the left side and sprinted at Dubuque quarterback Ben Gultig. No one touched Smith until he was on Gultig. On the other side, fifth-year linebacker Dane Flatter had a similar path to the quarterback and jumped with both arms in the air as Gultig pumped his arm to pass before bringing the ball down.
If Smith hadn’t reached Gultig first, Flatter would have tackled him. As it was, the freshman made a play that will be remembered for the rest of his career, clinching a 28-27 victory on the road in Week 1 on the sack with 42 seconds to play.
“To make that play to win it and finish the game was huge,” coach Jim Collins said Tuesday. “He was so happy to make that play.”
Smith bounced off the field with long strides before celebrating with his teammates on the sideline in Iowa. The sack resulted in a loss of 11 yards. Wittenberg’s offense took over and knelt on the ball. Seconds earlier, another first-time starter, quarterback Max Milton, was watching nervously.
“My heart was beating out of my chest,” Milton said. “(Smith’s) been a stud for us all camp and been a contributor really early.”
Wittenberg trailed 14-0, 21-7 and 27-14. A blocked extra point by Mario Getaw, a junior linebacker, after Dubuque’s fourth touchdown proved to be the difference when Bryce Anderson scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns. He ran for a 1-yard score with 10:52 to play and caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Milton with 2:57 remaining.
On the go-ahead touchdown, Milton rolled right and was under pressure when he found Anderson also breaking right. Anderson bulled into a defender at the goal line to score on 4th-and-3.
Milton completed 26 of 38 passes for 275 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“To say that it’s what I expected is going to sound a little overconfident,” Collins said, “but there’s a reason he won the job in preseason camp. He did a great job of just distributing the football to the right guys. He got the football there on time and accurately. He did a good job in pressure moments when we got into some situations, especially on fourth down on the 5-yard line there at the end. When he had to make a play, he made it, so it was good to see him have that type of a start to the season.”
Milton is from Carmel, Ind., and had not started a game since his senior year at the Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis.
“It was awesome,” Milton said. “It was a quality win on the road against Dubuque. Opening games are always kind of interesting. You don’t know a ton about the team. Dubuque’s not a super familiar opponent. But I think it spoke to the leadership we have on the team, being able to come back from 14 points down and finding a way to win in the fourth quarter.”
Milton’s top target was Dean Tate, a fifth-year senior from Indianapolis who caught 13 passes for 186 yards. He joins Corey Stump, Zach Culvahouse and Luke Landis on the list of Wittenberg players who have caught 13 or more passes in a game. Stump set the school single-game record of 16 catches in 2015 against Hiram.
Tate played the last three seasons at Ball State and caught three passes for 19 yards in seven games last season. Collins said Courtney Burchett, an associate director of admission, knew Tate when he was in high school, and when Tate put out word that he wanted to play another season, he visited the football offices at Wittenberg. The coaches didn’t hesitate to offer him a spot on the roster.
“He had a good preseason,” Collins said, “but he took it to another level this past Saturday.”
Collins and Milton also credited the offensive line — Henry Birchwell, Ed Bolden, Isaac Grilliot, Andrew McFeeters and Wyatt Osterhage — for not giving up a sack.
“With four new starters, they did a really good job,” Collins said. “You can’t get that football out if you don’t protect the quarterback, They did a good job along with the running backs of protecting the quarterback all day.”
Before the sack by Smith to clinch the victory and the go-ahead touchdown pass by Milton, the play of the day belonged to senior Tyler May, who returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown with 8:19 left in the third quarter, cutting Dubuque’s lead to 21-14. May broke a tackle just after fielding the punt, raced across the field and then got three key blocks on his way to the end zone.
“The interesting thing was that whole second and third quarter we were going into the wind and did not have great field position,” Collins said. “At that point in the game, we needed something big, and Tyler came up big as well as the whole unit because the whole unit did a great job of blocking.”
Wittenberg gets a week off before playing its second game. It faces Kenyon at 6 p.m. Sept. 16 at Edwards-Maurer Field in the first of eight North Coast Athletic Conference games. Kenyon lost 51-35 at Bluffton on Saturday.
The top five teams in the NCAC preseason poll — DePauw, Wabash, Denison, Ohio Wesleyan and Wittenberg — all won on the road in Week 1.
“It was a good week overall for the North Coast,” Collins said. “We know every week is going to be the type of week where you’ve got to play well. If you don’t play well, you’re going to put yourself behind the eight ball. So we’ve got to keep working and keep getting better and keep developing.”