GREENCASTLE – Maybe it was the history or their rivalry with their hosts on Saturday-and the historical win streak which they were putting together against them.
Perhaps it was the fact they suffered their only loss of the season to date just a week earlier by double digits to lose a shot at the North Coast Athletic Conference championship.
Whether a multitude of reasons or even just one, there was one thing for certain. Wabash was determined to get it in their 120th match-up with DePauw on Saturday in Greencastle.
They charged onto the new turf on Nick Mourouzis Field at Blackstock Stadium and took control of the game immediately with 28 unanswered points in less than 18 minutes of play. The quick spurt was more than enough to beat the Tigers 38-21 and claim a fifth consecutive Monon Bell victory.
“It’s huge to play for something that means so much to the family, the alumni, the school and everything,” said quarterback Michael Putko of the victory, which gives Wabash its longest winning streak in the series since they won six straight from 1949-1954. “It was a great opportunity to redeem ourselves after the loss last week against Wittenberg.”
That was a 35-17 defeat in front of a home crowd at Hollett Little Giants Stadium that not only cost them a chance at the NCAC title but automatic berth into the NCAA Division III playoffs. A win over DePauw-and a convincing one at that-was needed to keep Erik Raeburn’s team in the hunt for an at-large berth into the tournament.
Putko helped the Giants make a convincing case in front of nearly 8,000 fans at Blackstock Stadium sitting in many of the seats added for the century-old rivalry game. After Sean Hildebrand opened the score for Wabash with a ten-yard touchdown run, Putko threw three consecutive scoring strikes to a trio of Little Giants receivers.
His first went to John Laird as he rolled out and found the receiver downfield for the 64-yard touchdown to make it 14-0. Hildebrand got free in the endzone later in the first quarter to reel into a 23-yard pass from Putko for the score to make it 21-0 after the first quarter.
Just 2:13 into the second quarter Putko went to the air again to find James Kraus in the endzone for a 13-yard touchdown as Wabash put the Tigers out of reach going up 28-0.
“We felt like they were really going to crowd to box with the run game so we thought we were going to have to be more balanced in the first half and try to hit those pass plays early,” said Raeburn of the team throwing against the Tigers in the first half. “I thought Michael played fantastic in the first half and really impressed with his effort and all the receivers particularly Sean (Hildebrand).”
He led the Little Giants with ten catches for 125 yards and the touchdown. Putko was 11-for-14 in the first half for 191 yards and three scores, finishing the game with 296 yards of passing while hitting 21-of-29 of his passes, as he did his best to take advantage of what the DePauw defense was showing him.
“Their secondary was playing extremely aggressive so they were jumping on some of the shorter routes and let deeper routes slide in behind them,” said Putko of the first half. “So we took advantage of it.”
DePauw tried to rally behind their own quarterback Matt Hunt, who broke up the shutout with a touchdown pass to Barry Flynn with 8:27 to go in the first half. Grant Klembara got it back for Wabash with a touchdown run to finish at 15-play, 81 yard drive to make it 35-7 at halftime.
Hunt, a freshman who has started most of the year for Bill Lynch’s Tigers, would throw two more touchdown passes to J.D. Robinson in the second half to keep it interesting. He finished 12-of-21 with 172 yards passing but it wasn’t enough to deny the Little Giants their fifth straight victory over DePauw.
As they have in the past, seniors grabbed the Monon Bell off a cart on the Wabash side of Blackstock Stadium and carried it to midfield where each player rang it while surrounded by teammates, friends, and family.
“Its more than just the football team, it’s the tradition at Wabash,” said junior linebacker AJ Akinribade of the significance of winning the Monon Bell. “Our motto ‘Wabash Always Fights’, through the ups and the downs. We hold this game dear to our hearts because it’s what we treasure, it’s what we have.
“It’s been awesome and this goes to show how we always fight.”
Especially early-when so much is on the line.