by Greg Chandler
The Hope College football team strengthened its hold on first place in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association on Saturday with a 31-24 victory over Alma College at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium.
The Flying Dutchmen, now 5-0 in the MIAA and 7-1 overall, hold a one-game lead over second place Olivet College (4-1, 7-1) on the MIAA with two games remaining.
Hope can clinch a share of its first conference championship since 2007 and its first trip to the NCAA Division III playoffs since 2006 with a win at Kalamazoo College on Saturday, November 9. Kickoff at Angell Field is 1 p.m.
"When you're 4-0 and at the top of the league, you're going to get everybody's best shot," Hope coach Peter Stuursma said. "That's a good football team. They're well coached. I give (Alma) Coach (Jason) Couch and his staff a lot of credit for the way they played today."
Hope scored three of its four touchdowns on drives that started inside the Alma 35-yard-line, including two that were the result of turnovers created by the Flying Dutchmen defense.
Hope opened the scoring late in the first quarter with a 65-yard, 13-play drive. A key play in the drive was Hope electing to go for it on fourth-and-1 from its own 44. Senior quarterback Mason Opple of Hudsonville, Michigan (Hudsonville HS) picked up a 2-yard gain to allow the Dutchmen to move the chains.
Opple completed 4 of 5 passes on the drive for 40 yards, and junior running back Connor Mellon of Adrian, Michigan (Madison HS) ripped off an 11-yard run to put the ball inside the Alma 5. Opple powered in from the one for the first of his three rushing touchdowns in the game to give Hope a 6-0 lead.
"I felt we needed to set the tone," Stuursma said of his fourth-down call. "I felt it was important … to keep the ball out of their hands. I think those kinds of things jumpstart our guys, offensively and defensively, that we can have enough confidence in the play."
In the second quarter, the Hope defense created a short field for the offense when senior defensive end Jake Babb of Caledonia, Michigan (Caledonia HS) forced a fumble by Scots' quarterback Ryan Stevens, and junior nose guard Rylee Schultz of Grant, Michigan (Grant HS) recovered at the Alma 29.
Once again, Hope would face a fourth down situation, this time from the Alma 4. Again, Stuursma elected to go for it, and Opple scored his second touchdown on a sweep around right end. Opple then connected with Mellon for the two-point conversion to give Hope a 14-0 lead.
After an Alma touchdown, Hope got the ball back with 26 seconds left in the first half after forcing the Scots to punt from deep in their own end of the field.
Completions of 15 yards to senior wide receiver Christian Bos of Hudsonville, Michigan (Unity Christian HS) and 10 yards to freshman wide receiver TJ McKenzie of Muskegon, Michigan (North Muskegon HS) put the ball in field goal range, and senior placekicker Sam Allbritten of Warsaw, Indiana (Warsaw HS) kicked a 35-yard field goal on the final play of the half to boost the Hope lead to 17-6.
Alma cut the Hope lead to 17-12 in the third quarter on a 69-yard TD pass from Stevens to Nathan Goralski.
The Flying Dutchmen drove to the Alma 23 on their next possession, but an illegal procedure penalty pushed Hope out of field goal range. Senior punter Austin Heeres of Wyoming, Michigan (Grandville Calvin Christian HS) delivered a pooch punt that was downed at the Alma 8. Hope's defense then forced a three-and-out, and the Flying Dutchmen got the ball back at the Scots' 35 after a short punt.
Hope took advantage of the short field, taking seven plays to hit paydirt early in the fourth quarter. Sophomore running back Kenyea Houston of Chicago, Illinois (Westinghouse Prep HS) found the end zone on a 4-yard run with 12:19 remaining to extend the Hope lead to 24-12.
The Flying Dutchmen then came up with another big defensive play moments later, as senior linebacker Mason Dekker of Holland, Michigan (West Ottawa HS) made a diving interception of a Stevens pass at the Alma 30. It was the first interception of Dekker's career.
Hope once again cashed in on the turnover. Opple scored his third touchdown on a 1-yard run with 8:51 left, increasing the lead to 31-12. Opple now has 12 touchdowns this season and 42 for his career (41 rushing, one receiving).
Alma did get two late touchdowns, including one on the final play of the game, to narrow the final margin of victory.
"Our defense was outstanding," Stuursma said. "They created some turnovers for us and gave us a couple of short fields."
Hope finished the game with 361 yards total offense, 191 on the ground and 170 through the air. They picked up 22 first downs, and once again did not turn the football over. The Dutchmen have only committed one turnover in their first eight games, ranking tops among NCAA Division III teams in fewest turnovers committed.
Opple completed 16 of 24 passes for 170 yards, extending his streak of consecutive passes without an interception to 242. He was also Hope's leading rusher with 87 yards on 23 carriers. Houston added 56 yards on 15 carries.
Christian Bos caught five passes for 72 yards, while senior wide receiver Cooper Cecchini of Jenison, Michigan (Hudsonville HS) caught four balls for 47 yards and sophomore H-back Lou Baechler of Plymouth, Michigan (Canton HS) also had four receptions for 38 yards.
Allbritten kicked two extra points, giving him 47 for the season and breaking the Hope single-season record of 45 that was set by Darren Ford in 2017. Heeres only averaged 28.5 yards per punt, but placed all four of his punts inside the Alma 20.
Defensively, junior cornerback Chandler Brown of Woodstock, Georgia (Carlton J. Kell HS) had six tackles, and senior Luke Beckhusen of Coldwater, Michigan (Coldwater HS) had five stops and broke up two passes. Babb had two sacks and forced a fumble.