Wittenberg’s NCAC schedule turns tough with road game at Denison

Highlights: Wittenberg vs. Hiram on Sept. 18, 2021

Big Red have won two of last four games in series after losing 22 in a row to Tigers

Perhaps the biggest development in North Coast Athletic Conference football in recent years has been the improvement of Denison.

A race once dominated by Wabash and Wittenberg has turned into a three-team contest. Denison, Wabash and Wittenberg all tied for the championship in 2018 and 2019. Denison had two winning seasons in the first 13 years of this century and has since finished above .500 seven seasons in a row.

Denison (2-1, 2-0), which has outscored Allegheny and Oberlin 90-12 in its first two NCAC games, looks every bit as good this year, and Wittenberg (1-1, 1-0) faces the Big Red at 7 p.m. Saturday in Granville.

“It is a big challenge for us,” Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham said Thursday. “For a 20-year stretch there, it wasn’t such a big game, but they’ve done a really good job of pumping life back into the program. We’ve really gone back and forth. I think it’s been good for us, and I know it’s been good for the league, too.”

Wittenberg beat Denison 22 straight times from 1990-2015 before losing 24-21 on a 33-yard field goal by Conor Dunn with 21 seconds to play in 2016 in Granville.

“We finally got them,” said Denison coach Jack Hatem, who’s now in his 12th season with the program, after that victory.

Explore» PHOTOS: Wittenberg vs. Hiram

On its next trip to Granville in 2018, Wittenberg won the highest-scoring game in NCAC history, blowing a 35-10 halftime lead but winning 68-66 in four overtimes in Granville.

Denison got its revenge in 2019, winning 24-14 at Edwards-Maurer Field. Denison snapped a 22-game road losing streak to Wittenberg and won in Springfield for the first time since 1952.

The quarterback who started the last game against Wittenberg in 2019, Drew Dawkins, remains the starter in 2021. As a senior, he’s averaging 167.3 passing yards per game and has six touchdown passes and no interceptions.

“He’s a really great athlete,” Fincham said. “Their secondary’s back. They’re all good football players. There are others who are back, too, but a lot of the names have changed since the last time we played. They’re still the same type of Denison team. They’re going to get downhill on you in the run game. They play really hard on defense with great pursuit. They’re well coached. They tackle well. All those things.”

Denison blanked Allegheny 31-0 on Sept. 11. Allegheny played Wabash close the following week before losing 36-28. That game turned late in the third quarter when Wabash returned a blocked extra point 100 yards for a touchdown, breaking a 20-20 tie.

“It’s hard not to look at things like that,” Fincham said. “I fight it all the time, trying not to get caught up in comparing scores, but yeah, it catches your eye for sure.”

This will be the first road game for Wittenberg, which opened the season Sept. 4 with a 38-16 loss to SUNY Cortland and then evened its record at 1-1 with a 51-21 victory against Hiram last weekend.

“The positives outweighed the negatives coming out of it,” Fincham said. “We were a team that needed to get some confidence in itself with the inexperience we have, particularly offensively. It was nice to get out of the gates on both sides of the ball. There are things that we need to do better. We need consistency across the board, and so much of that comes from experience and understanding situations. Guys that have played have a much better ability to anticipate things happening in games, and they just react better to those situations. So right now we’ve just got to continue to grow.”