The McKendree University football team improved to 2-0 thanks to a 16-15 double overtime victory Saturday afternoon at home against West Liberty University.
After the visiting Hilltoppers scored in the second overtime period on a one-yard quarterback keeper by Dakota Conwell, West Liberty elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win. But a fumbled snap was recovered by junior defensive lineman Tobias Cook (Chicago, Ill./Westinghouse College Prep) to preserve the win in the Bearcats’ first overtime contest in 12 years.
“You talk about just a great defense and a great defensive effort, that’s what we got today,” said McKendree head football coach Mike Babcock. “Not only did we need it for all four quarters, but we needed extra out of them and they came through. They kept (Conwell) and that offense in check. That was a great team we faced today and we found a way.”
Senior linebacker A.J. Wentland (Machesney Park, Ill./Harlem) led the charge for the McKendree defense while etching his name into the Bearcats’ record book. Wentland led all players with 16 tackles, and also became the McKendree career leaders in tackles during the first quarter of the contest. He now has 306 tackles in his four seasons with the Bearcats, surpassing the previous mark of 295 set by former linebacker Brandon Nigro, who played at McKendree from 2008-11.
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“The great thing about A.J. is he is a great leader for our defense,” said Babcock. “He’s always excited just to take the field. Our guys feed off the energy he brings to the locker room and to the field. A.J. has certainly earned this honor.”
For the second straight game, senior defensive end Lucky Baar (Chicago, Ill./Lincoln Park) recorded three sacks for McKendree. He also matched a career-high with 12 tackles against West Liberty. Baar now has 35 career sacks with the Bearcats, which moves him within three of tying the
Junior linebacker Austin Weltha (Bloomington, Ill./Bloomington) chipped in with nine tackles along with a pair of interceptions. As a team, McKendree forced four turnovers by West Liberty, giving the Bearcats 10 takeaways in their first two games of the 2016 season.
The teams played to a scoreless first half before McKendree drew first blood thanks to a 36-yard field goal by senior kicker Steven O’Block (Libertyville, Ill./Carmel Catholic) in the early stages of the third quarter. With 9:17 remaining in the fourth quarter, O’Block tacked on a 42-yarder to extend the Bearcats’ lead to 6-0. On the ensuing drive for West Liberty, Braxton Gamble scored from 18 yards out to help the Hilltoppers pull even at 6-6. However, freshman defensive lineman Peyton Renken (Nashville, Ill./Nashville) blocked the PAT try to keep the score tied.
“We got a nice push up the middle,” said Babcock of Renken’s block. “We knew that would be big for us this week after they had a couple (of kicks) blocked last week in the game (a 32-25 loss) to Concord. Luckily we were able to capitalize on it, get the game into overtime.”
West Liberty drove down to the McKendree 33-yard line in the closing seconds, but the Bearcats held on third and fourth down in the final 32 seconds to push the contest into overtime. The teams traded field goals in the first overtime period, including O’Block’s third of the game from 34 yards out.
McKendree then had the first possession of the second overtime session. Junior quarterback Elcee Burke (Chicago, Ill./Simeon) converted a key third-down play for the Bearcats when he connected with senior wide receiver Sean Dowling (Chatham, Ill./Glenwood) for 13 yards down to the Hilltoppers’ seven-yard line. Three plays later, Burke threaded the needle on a 15-yard TD strike to Dowling, and O’Block’s point after gave McKendree a 16-9 advantage.
Conwell kept the West Liberty hopes alive when he completed a 21-yard pass to the Bearcats’ one-yard line on fourth down. Conwell then scored on the Hilltoppers’ next play to bring the visitors within a point. A fumbled exchange on the decisive two-point conversion was quickly covered by Cook to give McKendree the win.
The Bearcats have now played five overtime games since the revival of the football program, and have won each of those contests. It was the first time McKendree has been involved in an overtime game since a 38-31 triumph at Saint Ambrose University late in the 2004 campaign.
Shayeen Edwards (Cahokia, Ill./Cahokia) rushed for a game-high 98 yards on 32 carries for McKendree. It marked the second game in a row that Edwards topped 30 carries in a contest. Burke threw for 129 yards on the day. His favorite target was junior wide receiver Dustin Walls (Champaign, Ill./Centennial), who had six catches for 51 yards. Dowling added four receptions for 55 yards.
McKendree will hit the road for the first time in 2016 next Saturday (Sept. 17) with a visit to FCS member Drake University. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. in Des Moines, Iowa.