Stepina_Nicco 09.24.17.jpg (copy)

Big Blue quarterback Nicco Stepina (2) runs the ball in the first quarter against North Central College. To see more photos from the game visit www.herald-reveiw.com/gallery

DECATUR — The Millikin football team is really two different teams. 

There is the team that shows up at the opening kickoff and plays through halftime. That team frequently starts off slow and finds itself in a hole heading into the second half.

Then the second team appears, and that's the one that has delivered Millikin a 5-1 start to the season and a 3-1 CCIW record.

That second team outscores opponents 68-28 in the third quarter and 72-36 in the fourth quarter.

That team has engineered comeback victories against Rose-Hulman, Wheaton, and Augustana

That team believes anything is possible. 

"This team has the most self-belief of any football team I’ve ever been around," Millikin coach Dan Gritti said. "They expect to win and that’s a very big positive for us in the fourth quarter. What we are trying to do is make it a positive for us in the first quarter."

The backward starts aren't because of a lack of energy at the beginning of the game. In fact, it's the opposite problem.

"I think we might actually be a little too excited early," Gritti said. "We are just so hyped up and ready to go that everything goes out the window when it is not easy right off the bat."

Though Millikin has overcame its bad first halves in every game but one, quarterback Nicco Stepina said the Big Blue recognize it's a problem.

"We are a really good second half team, we just have to focus up in the first half and score points and I think we can improve that this year," he said. 

Stepina put some of the responsibility on his shoulders. 

"I know I have some jitters when I come out," he said. "The players have been making fun a little bit that I need to take a hit in pregame but I think it is a little bit of that. We are focusing on it in practice and I hope that is something that improves for us."

Killing time

Last week's 28-27 victory against Augustana included three separate lightning delays that extended the game time by more than three hours.

With the average delay lasting around 30 minutes, what does a team do with a three hour plus total delay?  

"(The team) sits in the locker room, they put some music on, get the shoulder pads off, and get some stretching in", Gritti said. "We talked a little bit about football stuff but it’s not like you are in there for two hours redoing everything." 

The long delay also brought around another new problem — feeding the team in the middle of a game.

"As a rule you eat three-and-a-half to four hours before kickoff so by then you are going a long time without food. We had to send some of the assistants off to Walmart to get some food," Gritti said. 

 Stepina met with his offense during the delays.

"We got the offense together in the locker room and stayed focused. Some guys threw their headphones on, other guys sat and talked about the game and talked about things we needed to improve on," he said. 

Although the Big Blue came out victorious, it's unclear if the delays were a key to the win. 

"The first (delay) hurt us, the second one didn’t hurt us, and the third one inspired us," Gritti said. "We were getting lots of lightning strikes and they weren’t stopping the game and then all of a sudden we make a big play and it gets stopped. That motivated our guys a little bit."

"I wouldn’t say it helped us," Stepina said. "I would rather have just played through but I think it did help us focus up a little bit."

Carroll QB a challenge

For the second week in a row, Millikin will be facing an unproven yet imposing rookie quarterback in Carroll's 6-foot-3 Michael Johnson. 

"(Johnson) poses some unique challenges. He’s a bigger kid and really hard to tackle," Gritti said.  "There’s one play in their game against Wesleyan that he broke five tackles to get a first down." 

 Gritti is also focused in on Carroll receivers Parker Zitzke and Brandon Ehrk. 

"Their two receivers, they really make the offense go for them," he said. "We've really go to limit their touches."

mflaten@herald-review.com | (217) 421-6968

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Sports Writer

Sports writer for the Herald & Review.

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