By Alan Babbitt
An amazing Community Day atmosphere Friday night at Ray & Sue Smith Stadium nearly was perfect for the Hope College football team.
Millikin University (Illinois) spoiled the festivities, getting two sacks on the Flying Dutchmen's final drive to preserve a 25-21 victory in the 2018 season opener in front of a crowd of 3,010. It was the first Friday night opener for the Flying Dutchmen.
"What an atmosphere. Everything we wanted to accomplish out of a Friday night game happened. I want to say thank you to the community and our students. That was a neat atmosphere," head coach Peter Stuursma said. "I also owe them an apology because we didn't find a way to close it at the end. That one's going to sting because we let one slip away. We're not far off. That's a good football team over there. That team went 7-3 last year and returned nine starters.
"I know they will stick by us. That's what Hope does. That's what this community does."
Photo of Kenyea Houston by Steven Herppich
The Flying Dutchmen nearly thrilled their loyal fans after forcing a Millikin punt with 3 minutes, 19 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and taking possession near midfield.
Three plays later, Hope pushed ahead to the Millkin 24-yard line with plenty of time remaining on the clock.
Linebackers Matthew Brown and Nika Averitte sacked quarterback Mason Opple of Hudsonville, Michigan (Hudsonville HS) on consecutive plays for a combined loss of 15 yards. A desperation fourth-down heave from Opple fell incomplete in the end zone and allowed Millikin to run out the final 59 seconds.
Earlier in the game, two other potential scoring drives were thwarted. A fumble at the Millikin 14-yard line in the fourth quarter prevented Hope from taking a two-score lead. A third-quarter holding penalty called back a touchdown run by freshman running back Kenyea Houston of Chicago, Illinois (George Westinghouse).
Millikin marched 86 yards in 10 plays after the fumble to take its first lead of the game on a 17-yard touchdown catch by receiver Greg Perry from quarterback Nicco Stepina.
Stepina completed 19-of-38 passes for 261 yards and touchdowns. Millikin outgained Hpe 422-355 despite losing the time of possession battle by 10 ½ minutes.
Houston rushed for 102 yards on 19 carries in his Flying Dutchmen debut.
Opple passed for 139 yards and two scores while also rushing for 62 yards and one touchdown. He connected on second-quarter scoring strikes of 21 yards to tight end Jake Kozlowski of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (Badger) and 25 yards to receiver Emari Hardy of Muskegon, Michigan (Mona Shores).
Opple also scored on a 2-yard run during the first quarter.
Defensive back Luke Beckhusen of Coldwater, Michigan (Caledonia) led Hope's defense with a career-high 11 tackles.
Linebacker Mason Dekker of Holland, Michigan (West Ottawa) recorded 10 tackles, including one sack.