by Greg Chandler
The Hope College football team weathered the cold and rainy conditions, its own mistakes and an unbeaten opponent on Saturday.
The Flying Dutchmen used a potent ground attack to hand hosts Olivet College its first loss of the season, 21-7, and seized sole possession of first place in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association standings.
Off its first 4-0 start in MIAA play since 2007 — the league-championship season — Hope holds a one-game lead over Olivet (6-1, 3-1 MIAA) and Alma College (5-2, 3-1 MIAA).
There are three league games remaining, the next of which is at home against Alma on Saturday, November 2 at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium. Kickoff is 1 p.m.
"I thought that game was a really big step for our program, from a character standpoint, from a toughness standpoint," head coach Peter Stuursma said. "We overcame some adversity. We've been the (least) penalized team in the country. We had some penalties that hurt us a couple of times, but we got out of them."
The Flying Dutchmen jumped out to a 14-0 lead by scoring on their first two possessions, rushing for 140 yards against an Olivet defense that entered the game as the MIAA's top rushing defense while allowing only 79 yards per game.
After stopping the Comets on the game's opening drive, Hope drove 80 yards in seven plays, almost entirely on the feet of senior quarterback Mason Opple of Hudsonville, Michigan (Hudsonville HS). A 50-yard scramble by Opple after he was flushed out of the pocket was the key play in the drive. Opple finished off the drive with a 7-yard touchdown run to give the Dutchmen a 7-0 lead 5:42 into the contest.
Then, after the Hope defense forced a three-and-out, the Flying Dutch Dutchmen came back with a 60-yard, eight-play drive. A 17-yard run by Opple put the ball in the red zone, and on the next play, junior running back Connor Mellon of Adrian, Michigan (Madison HS) scored on a 15-yard run. The conversion by senior placekicker Sam Allbritten of Warsaw, Indiana (Warsaw HS) gave Hope a 14-0 lead with a little more than three minutes left in the first quarter.
The Hope defense kept Olivet's high-powered rushing attack in check the remainder of the first half, limiting the Comets to just 33 yards in 16 attempts in the first 30 minutes. Olivet had entered the game averaging nearly 237 yards rushing, second only to Hope among MIAA teams.
Hope had a late scoring opportunity in the first half, but came up empty as Allbritten missed a 27-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the half.
Olivet got on the board early in the fourth quarter on a 4-yard touchdown run by MIAA rushing leader Noah McMinn. Then the Comets forced a three-and-out, and Olivet seemingly had the momentum going their way toward a potential tying score.
The Comets, who led the MIAA coming into the game in red zone conversions, scoring touchdowns on 85 percent of their drives inside the opponents' 20-yard-line, drove to the Hope 12. But a holding penalty, followed by a bad snap that resulted in a 14-yard-loss, put Olivet in a third-and-30 situation. The Flying Dutchmen were able to hold and took over possession on downs with 7:22 to play.
Hope picked up two first downs but eventually had to punt. Senior punter Austin Heeres of Wyoming, Michigan (Grandville Calvin Christian HS) delivered a 60-yard boot that was downed at the Olivet 1-yard line.
Again, the Hope defense rose to the occasion, forcing an incomplete pass on fourth down to take over at the Comets' 12-yard line. On the next play, Opple ran for his second touchdown of the day and the 39th of his career to give the Dutchmen a 21-7 lead with 2:15 to play.
Senior defensive back Nick Holt of Norton Shores, Michigan (Muskegon Catholic Central HS) sealed the win with an interception off a tip by freshman teammate Brady Howe of Holland, Michigan (Holland Christian HS) on the first play following the ensuing kickoff. The Flying Dutchmen ran out the clock.
Opple rushed for 213 yards on 25 carries for his second career 200-yard rushing performance, putting him over the 2,000-yard mark for his career. Last year, he rushed for 244 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-30 Hope win over Olivet at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium.
On Saturday, he also completed 7 of 13 passes for 61 yards, extending his streak of consecutive passes without an interception to 218. His 274 yards of total offense put him over the 6,000-yard career mark.
"What can you say about Mason Opple? He's a beast," Stuursma said. "It's like tackling a dump truck. He saddled us up and put us on his shoulders and carried us."
Hope finished the game with 310 yards rushing on 51 attempts, while holding the Comets to 103 rushing yards and 220 yards of total offense, 190 yards below their season average.
The Flying Dutchmen converted 9 of 15 on third downs, including an amazing 8 of 9 in the first half. Stuursma attributed the success of the Dutchmen's ground game to their offensive line.
"We start with the three seniors that are starting – Zach Smith, Tim Ivery and Noah de Velder – and then have the juniors, Brady Anderson and Brady Eding. Then you add Lou Baechler into that. That's an H-back that doesn't get the credit that he deserves, but that's a pretty good group," he said.
Baechler, a sophomore from Plymouth, Michigan (Canton HS), was Hope's leading receiver with four catches for 33 yards.
Holt and junior defensive back Chandler Brown of Woodstock, Georgia (Carlton J. Kell HS) led the Hope defense with seven tackles apiece.
Allbritten's three extra points for the day give him 45 for the season, tying the school record for most extra points in a season set by Darren Ford in 2017.
"I'm just so proud of our guys. I'm happy for them, but we also know it's just another step in the process," Stuursma said. "We're going to enjoy today, then we go back to work on Monday."