By Greg Chandler
The Hope College football team drove inside the Millikin University 5-yard line in the waning moments of Friday night's season opener, but could not punch in the winning score.
The Flying Dutchmen dropped a 27-21 decision to the Big Blue at Frank M. Lindsay Field in Decatur, Illinois.
Hope earned an opportunity to drive for the win by stopping Millikin on downs at the Hope 43 with a little more than eight minutes remaining. On fourth down from midfield, senior quarterback Mason Opple of Hudsonville, Michigan (Hudsonville HS) found junior running back Connor Mellon of Adrian, Michigan (Madison) for a 37-yard completion to put Hope in the red zone.
Two plays later, sophomore Kenyea Houston of Chicago, Illinois (Westinghouse Prep) picked up eight yards to give Hope a third-and-1 at the Millikin 4. For a team that converted 77 percent of its red zone opportunities into touchdowns last season (37 of 48), the Dutchmen seemed in prime position to regain the lead.
However, Opple was stopped for no gain on third down, and the Big Blue defense tackled Mellon short of the first down on a sweep on fourth down to take over the football with 3:56 remaining. Millikin then picked up two first downs and ran out the clock to beat the Flying Dutchmen for the second consecutive season.
"I don't know why we couldn't put it in on fourth and goal," Hope coach Peter Stuursma said. "That's something we normally do. They made a play and we didn't. That was obviously the ball game."
Hope opened the scoring with an impressive 99-yard, 13-play drive midway through the first quarter after Millikin downed a punt inches from the end zone. Opple capped the drive with a 9-yard run for the first of his three rushing touchdowns in the game. Senior placekicker Sam Allbritten of Warsaw, Indiana (Warsaw HS) kicked the extra point for a 7-0 Hope lead.
After Millikin tied the score with a quick strike 80-yard, four-play drive, the Dutchmen put together another long drive, this time 80 yards on 15 plays, taking up more than six-and-a-half minutes of the clock. Opple faked a jet sweep handoff, then went straight up the middle for an 8-yard TD run to give Hope a 14-7 lead with 9:14 left in the second quarter.
A 38-yard touchdown pass from Cal Pohrte to Jordan Smith pulled the Big Blue within one at 14-13, but Millikin botched the snap on the extra point. Hope took that one-point lead to the lockerroom at halftime.
The Big Blue took their first lead at 20-14 on the opening drive of the second half when Pohrte connected with Patrick Cooper on a 16-yard touchdown pass.
However, it didn't take long for Hope to respond. The Flying Dutchmen drove 92 yards in six plays to regain the lead. Opple escaped the Millikin rush, made a couple of Big Blue defenders miss and ended up going 43 yards for his third touchdown of the game and 33rd of his career. Allbritten's conversion gave Hope a 21-20 lead midway through the third quarter.
The Big Blue came right back with a drive of their own that would give them the lead for good on the next possession, going 81 yards on 13 plays. Kame'Ron Graham pounded it into the end zone on fourth down from the one to put Millikin ahead 27-21.
The Big Blue threatened to add to their lead early in the fourth quarter, as they had a first and goal at the Hope 2. But the FLying Dutchmen came up with a goal line stand to keep their hopes alive. Junior Jeremiah Purnell of Dorr, Michigan (Wyoming HS) stopped Graham at the 1 on fourth down, and Hope took over on downs.
"The defense gave us a chance, and we didn't punch it in offensively," Stuursma said. "At the end of the day, we've got to fix some things. You look at the game, (we had) two penalties, there were no fumbles, no turnovers. I thought we were pretty good in special teams, and yet we didn't win the game. That's the frustrating part and that's the thing that's going to eat at me."
Hope gained 377 yards in total offense for the game. Opple personally accounted for 296 yards in total offense, rushing for 99 yards on 21 carries and completing 15 of 20 passes for 197 yards despite being under pressure from a heavy Millikin rush nearly the entire game.
Houston added 68 yards on 18 carries for the Dutchmen. Senior wide receiver Christian Bos of Hudsonville, Michigan (Unity Christian HS) caught six passes for 37 yards, while senior wideout Cooper Cecchini of Hudsonville, Michigan (Hudsonville HS) had four receptions for 75 yards and Mellon three grabs for a team-high 81 yards.
Defensively, Purnell and senior defensive end Jake Babb of Caledonia, Michigan (Caledonia HS) led Hope with eight tackles each.
The Flying Dutchmen return home next Saturday, September 14 at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium for the annual Community Day contest against Defiance (Ohio) College. Kickoff is at 1:30 p.m.