Wittenberg’s ground game dominates game against NCAC’s best run defense

Wittenberg returns to action Saturday at home against Oberlin after big win at DePauw

Garrett Gross knew all about Jake Kennedy’s reputation at Wittenberg when he was going through the recruiting process.

Kennedy graduated from Bellefontaine High School in 2015 and took his quarterback skills to Wittenberg, where he became the program’s all-time leading passer. Gross graduated from Bellefontaine in 2020 and was a member of a 65-man Wittenberg recruiting class that saw its freshman season cancelled because of the pandemic.

“I knew if I was going to come somewhere close, it’d probably be here to Wittenberg,” Gross said. “When I was recruited here, they emphasized this is a winning football tradition, and that’s what I want to do: win games. Seeing Jake’s success made me realize Wittenberg is filled with people who want to win.”

Wittenberg showed its desire for winning again last Saturday, beating previously unbeaten DePauw 30-7 in Greencastle, Ind. The victory kept Wittenberg (3-2 overall) in contention in the North Coast Athletic Conference. With a 3-1 league mark, Wittenberg is tied with DePauw and a half game behind Ohio Wesleyan (3-0). Wabash (2-1) is in fourth place

If Wittenberg wins its last four NCAC games against Oberlin, Denison, Wooster and Ohio Wesleyan, it would still need Wabash to lose a game at some point to claim the NCAA Division III playoff bid. Wabash would win a head-to-head tiebreaker against Wittenberg because of its 42-35 victory in Springfield if those two teams tied for first.

Against DePauw, Gross ran for a season-high 131 yards on 25 carries. He ranks third in the North Coast Athletic Conference with 100.5 yards per game.

“He’s just so hard to tackle,” Wittenberg coach Jim Collins said. “He runs hard. He’s got a low center of gravity. He doesn’t stop his feet. That’s his game. He’s a power runner. He can make some guys miss, but his thing is just being able to run through those arm tackles.”

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Gross had help in the running game Saturday. Senior Bryce Anderson, who’s averaging 60.8 yards in four games, ran for a 10-yard touchdown in the third quarter and a 23-yard score in the fourth quarter. Junior Reed Hall ran four times for 21 yards and is averaging 30.6 yards per game.

Wittenberg rushed for 230 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, against a team that leads the NCAC in rushing defense (79.3 yards per game).

“I thought the backs ran really hard,” Collins said, “and the line did a great job of blocking for them. That was one of those games where early on yards were tough to come by, but we were patient with the run game, and it paid off. Those two- and three-yard gains in the first quarter turned into bigger gains in the second half.”

Wittenberg also benefitted when DePauw lost its starting quarterback Wally Renie in the third quarter. Collins thinks Renie hurt his shoulder on a tackle but stayed in for two more plays and handed the ball off on DePauw’s first touchdown as it took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. He left the game after that series.

Nathan McCahill took over at quarterback and threw four interceptions. Wittenberg defensive back Anthony Pedro picked off two passes.

“When their quarterback went out, you could tell the pressure we were putting on their backup got to him,” Collins said. “When you can pressure a quarterback to make mistakes and make sure you get people in his face, you can create those turnovers. Anthony’s two interceptions were key. They were great plays.”

Defensive tackle Grant Hollinger had the first interception of the game and returned it 27 yards to set up Wittenberrg’s first score. On the first play after the interception, Collin Brown threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Drew Sterett.

“That really changed the momentum of the game,” Collins said, “because we were struggling offensively to move the ball on their defense at that point in the first quarter. That was a spark.”

Wittenberg returns to action at 4 p.m. Saturday against Oberlin at Edwards-Maurer Field. It will still be riding the high of its celebration after the victory against DePauw.

“Our guys are excited,” Collins said. “You get into that locker room after a win, and you just feel reborn. Everyone’s got a smile on their face, and they’re celebrating. That’s fun. That’s when you know all the hard work paid off for you.”

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