Millikin

Millikin's Patrick Cooper (right) and Tyrice Hines (left) celebrate during Saturday's win over Wheaton College.

CLAY JACKSON, HERALD & REVIEW

DECATUR – The last time Millikin beat Wheaton College, starting Big Blue quarterback Nicco Stepina would have been about to enter kindergarten. 

That was back in 2001.

Saturday, it was the mature Stepina who commanded the Millikin (4-1, 2-1) offense down the field in an impressive two-minute drill that Millikin fans will be talking about for a while. 

He also weaved through the defense of the No. 13-ranked team in Division III football for a 2-yard run that gave Millikin the 35-31 victory Saturday night.

For Millikin, it was a surprising end to a game that the Big Blue seemed destined to lose, no matter what Wheaton College (4-2, 2-2) did. 

Wheaton coughed up the ball four times and lost three of them to the Big Blue. The Thunder were also penalized 15 times for 153 yards of field position, and yet they were able to dominate the first half and hold the lead nearly the entire game. 

It was 21-7 at the half and the fact that the Thunder's Earl Campbell-like running back Sola Olateju only had 79 yards rushing after two quarters felt like a moral victory for Millikin. 

Millikin's usually strong receiving corps was hampered from the very start as starting wide outs Gerald Perry and Marquis Yarbrough were both out due to injury.

That made remaining starter Jordan Smith's life a little more difficult as Wheaton's defense could focus in on him. 

And yet Smith came through in the clutch, grabbing a one-handed touchdown catch in the forth quarter that would make Odell Beckham Jr. jealous.

"It was crazy. I don't want to have to experience anything like that again, that was crazy," Smith said of his one-handed TD catch. 

The wild catches took a toll on Smith who had to come out for several plays throughout the game to receive help from coaches. 

"I've got a little bumps and bruises but I'm good. We are all good," Smith added.  

Along with Smith, it was an impressive group of freshmen receivers, Patrick Cooper, Tyrice Hines, and Clurion Brown, that led an incredible Millikin comeback in the second half. 

Outscoring the Thunder 28-10 after halftime, the Big Blue seemed like a team possessed.  

At halftime, Millikin coach Dan Gritti reminded the team how important their connection as teammates was.

"It's the bond this team has. Everyone has each other's back and that is stronger than anything we are going to face," he said. "We looked each other in the eyes and we got the job done."

It was Hines who led Millikin with seven receptions for 70 yards. Brown added 60 yards on six receptions and Cooper added 51 yards and a touchdown. 

Stepina was impressed with how his freshmen receivers played. 

"They stepped up big time tonight. The funny thing is, they've been joking all day about which NFL receivers they are," he said. "They looked pretty much like them tonight."

"Our freshmen receivers played out of their minds tonight," Gritti said. "We played with two of our best three receivers out. Our entire left side of the offensive line was out and we got the job done. I could not be prouder.

"This reinforces everything we said when we got here. Everyone is going to have an opportunity and the guys have to be ready when it is their turn and they delivered tonight," he added. 

As Millikin and Wheaton each grabbed the lead as the clock ran down in the fourth quarter, it was Millikin's ball with 1:56 left, down 31-28.

It was Smith who again saveed the day with an acrobatic 29-yard catch from Stepina that put Millikin first and goal at the 4-yard line.  

Stepina was in awe of Smith's ability to come down with the tough catch. 

"We call him 'the freak' and that's exactly why. He's the freak," he said. 

Stepina's TD run quickly followed to give Millikin the lead 35-31 with 31 seconds left. 

It was Millikin's defense that put the final dagger in Wheaton as Israel Smith intercepted Curtis McWilliams pass, killing any chance of a comeback for the Thunder. 

Millikin had many high school recruits visiting campus this week and it is the kind of victory that could propel the program to bigger and better things as they all witnessed the best victory in the program's recent history. 

"I'm so proud of these kids. I'm so excited the way we finished this game. We had (Wheaton) on the ropes last year and we couldn't finish it," Gritti said. "This is a new team and let there be no question, Millikin football is back!"

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

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