HOLLAND, Mich. — Millikin football team found itself down by three at halftime against Hope College but fought back to win 25-21 on a fourth quarter touchdown pass from Big Blue Nico Stepina to Gerald Perry in the season-opener on Friday.
The Big Blue's first-game rustiness was obvious and exacerbated by the long distance from home.
"It’s a particular challenge to go almost five hours away from home for the first game of the year. The first game you are always going to have jitters and being away from home magnifies it," Millikin coach Dan Gritti said. "We certainly saw that tonight, our tackling wasn’t particularly good on defense and that was where Hope got a lot of their yardage from not executing."
The first half saw touchdowns on the ground from Stepina and sophomore running back Jazontae Howard. Howard led all rushers with 133 yards on 23 carries.
"Jazontae definitely ran the ball well. He had a fumble which was costly but he took the workload for us and he also helps us in the pass protection game picking up blitzes," Gritti said.
Millikin receiver Jordan Smith led the receivers with 101 yards on six receptions.
"Jordan stayed focused and played a heck of a game. Our receivers played very well," Gritti said. "Nico had a good game, not a great game. He was cramping most of the second half and it limited his mobility and the things that he is normally able to do. He delivered the ball on time when we needed it in the second half.
Stepina was 19-for-38 for 261 yards and two touchdowns.
Gritti sees a lot of problems in his team's play and they have work to do before the CCIW conference schedule opens against North Park University on Sept. 15.
"It was a close ballgame and we didn’t play particularly well but we pulled out the victory. What I liked was that we continued to fight and showed focus," he said. "We just made some many mental errors and once we correct those we will be in good shape. To play that poorly and still be able to win is a good thing and we know what we need to get ready for the conference season now."