BLOOMINGTON — The game ball sat peacefully on Norm Eash’s desk late Saturday afternoon. It had been through a lot.
First, Illinois Wesleyan safety Trevor Staley plucked it out of the air and rambled deep into Millikin territory, setting up a touchdown. Seconds later, IWU defensive lineman Eric Dubose punched it out, creating a fumble that led to another score.
By 4:30 p.m., the ball was enjoying a well-deserved rest in Eash’s corner office at Shirk Center. As for Eash and his Titans, they were savoring a hard-earned College Conference of Ilinois and Wisconsin co-championship and NCAA Division III playoff berth.
IWU’s 31-6 Seniors Day victory over Millikin at Tucci Stadium also provided Eash with his 200th career win and record-tying 142nd CCIW victory.
“It’s awesome,” sophomore quarterback Brandon Bauer said of everything that was secured by Saturday’s win. “It’s like a fairytale almost.”
The reality was No. 11-ranked IWU improved to 9-1 overall, 7-1 in the CCIW and shared the league title with North Central, the Titans’ first conference championship since 2009. Sunday afternoon, they’ll learn their opponent for their first playoff game since 2013.
“I’m so proud of our players. This has been a special season,” said Eash, who is in his 31st year at his alma mater. “From the opening game against Wisconsin-Whitewater, our kids have believed, we have played hard and we’ve had no breaking point. It’s a credit to this team and it’s led by the seniors. They have done a great job.”
IWU’s 21 seniors were honored in the pregame. Late in the second quarter, it was juniors Staley and Dubose who made the game-changing plays.
Leading 10-0, Staley picked off a pass from Millikin star quarterback Nicco Stepina and returned it 56 yards to the Big Blue 5. Bauer’s pass to Zach Walsh on the next play made it 17-0 with 1:01 on the clock.
“We were in Cover-3 and I knew that he (Stepina) was looking to slants a lot,” Staley said. “I was already rolled down. The second I saw him look to the slant I jumped out to the flat and he kind of threw it right to me.”
One play after the kickoff, Dubose knocked the ball loose from Millikin running back George Jimerson and IWU’s Kieron Swain recovered at the Big Blue 20. Three plays later, Bauer’s 2-yard TD pass to Morgan Alexander made it 24-0 with 11.7 seconds left before halftime.
“Our coaches teach us that when everybody’s gang tackling to punch it out and keep ripping at it,” Dubose said. “I was just able to do it.
“This is the best feeling in the world. It’s the biggest game I ever played in.”
IWU used two long drives to consume most of the third quarter. The second march ended in a 25-yard Bauer TD pass to Walsh on fourth down for a 31-0 lead.
Millikin (7-3, 5-3) avoided a shutout with Stepina’s 12-yard scoring pass to Joseph Coates early in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense played well. The offense just put them in some tough situations when we turned the ball over,” said Stepina, who ended a breakout season with 2,785 yards passing and 29 touchdowns. “It felt like we were playing from behind all day.
“Their front seven is really good. It’s tough to run the ball against them (11 carries, seven net yards) so it makes your offense one-dimensional. We knew that coming in. We just didn’t execute the way we should have.”
IWU’s first 10 points came on an 11-yard run by Alexander and a 27-yard Anthony Sciarini field goal. The defense held Millikin’s high-powered offense to 304 yards, while the Titans had 371.
“Props to our defense for getting those turnovers,” said Bauer, who was 22 of 30 for 233 yards. “That gave us the opportunity and we executed on it.”
“Turnovers gave us short fields and great teams capitalize on those,” Eash said. “Our kids did a great job of taking them out of the game in that first half. That’s the best Millikin team I’ve seen in 10 years. They’re a dangerous team.”
Eash was presented the game ball after boosting his record to 200-102-1 and CCIW mark to 142-81-1, tying his former IWU coach Don Larson for most league wins.
“That’s a lot of bus rides to get to 200,” Eash said, smiling. “To get 200 wins, that’s a humbling thing for me. You can’t do that by yourself. You do it because you have great staff members around and players who believe in what you’re doing.”