DECATUR — The Millikin football offensive game was running on all cylinders Saturday as it opened the CCIW schedule against North Park at Lindsay Field.
The Big Blue running game, led by Jazontae Howard, powered the first half, and the passing game dominated the second as Milllikin rolled 48-27.
The scoring began with Millikin quarterback Nicco Stepina connecting with Patrick Cooper for a 7-yard touchdown pass for the 7-0 lead at 8:47 in the first quarter.
The Big Blue defense wouldn't be outdone as junior linebacker Matt Brown intercepted a deflected pass off a North Park receiver's helmet. Brown returned it deep into North Park territory, where Stepina then connected with Jordan Smith for the touchdown.
A scary moment occurred for North Park midway through the first quarter, when receiver Micah Lowe was injured after getting tackled around the knees and had to be carted off the field on a stretcher.
After a penalty took away a long pass to Cooper, it was Howard's turn to shine. He broke through the line and ran 79 yards for a touchdown, putting the Big Blue up 20-0 after the missed point-after attempt.
Howard continued his strong north/south running later in the second quarter with a 39-yard touchdown run straight through the line to put the Big Blue up 27-7.
Howard racked up 180 yards in the first half and finished with 193 after sitting much of the second half.
Howard, a sophomore, has quickly picked up a running style that works — straight ahead.
"Today was probably my best game in my collegiate career. I think I can do everything but definitely north/south is a favorite. When you come to college you realize that north/south running is the best way to go," he said.
Although Howard doesn't catch many passes, he also plays a key role in the passing game.
"The part that’s unsung for (Jazontae) is how good he is at pass protection," Millikin coach Dan Gritti said. "So when he is out there Nicco has more time and he is able to make plays. He’s a special running back and he makes everyone look good so we are really happy with his performance today."
As the half ran down, North Park ran an effective two-minute drill, tossing short pass after short pass until quarterback Grant Borsch chucked a 30-yard touchdown to Brandon Vinson to make it 27-14 at halftime.
Millikin received the second half kickoff and struck quickly with a 54-yard touchdown pass from Stepina to Gerald Perry down the middle of the field to give the Big Blue the 34-14 lead.
The Millikin defense then swarmed the Vikings. Millikin's Gabe Xayathone sacked the quarterback and the Big Blue recovered the ensuing fumbled North Park punt snap. Sophomore Ladavion Severado put in the 3-yard touchdown run for his first career score for the Big Blue, giving them a 41-14 lead.
Third-string North Park quarterback Jason McGovern ran in a 3-yard keeper to keep the Vikings within three scores, 41-21, but it was the powerful combination of Stepina-to-Smith that put the game away for the Big Blue.
Stepina connected to Smith for a 91-yard slant-and-go touchdown pass with 8:23 left in the game to give Millikin the 48-21 lead.
Smith put his speed on display as he pulled away from his defender as they raced down the sideline.
"I just wasn’t getting caught. I knew I had a mistake not catching a deep post earlier and I just was going to make up for it then and I wasn’t going to get caught," Smith said.
Stepina finished 22-for-37 with 344 yards passing and four touchdowns and Smith caught 140 yards of those yards and two scores. Perry also crossed the century mark with 115 yards receiving.
A North Park (1-1, 0-1 CCIW) score as time expired made the final score 48-27. Even with the decisive victory Millikin still has much to improve upon, Gritti said.
"We played better in spurts than we did at Hope College (in Week 1) but we haven’t found the button to push to sustain it for four quarters. We are like a kid who eats some sugar and goes hog wild and then crashes. We go hog wild again and then we crash. We need to even it out if we are going to be good next week," he said.
Millikin (2-0, 1-0 CCIW) travels to Wheaton College next Saturday at 6 p.m in a big CCIW meeting. Last season, the Big Blue beat the Thunder in a wild game in the final moments, 35-31.