Wheaton College sees quarterfinal slip away in final seconds
In 24 seasons coaching Wheaton College football, Mike Swider has endured some emotionally painful losses.
Saturday's 34-33 defeat to St. John's University in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal might be the most difficult.
"It's hard, man. It's hard. It's really, really hard," Swider said, shaking his head in disappointment.
The game came down to the final seconds. After No. 8-ranked St. John's regained the lead, the No. 3 Thunder (12-1) methodically drove downfield, taking time off the clock. Finally, Jake Hibben, a 280-pound offensive lineman lined up in the fullback position, plunged over the goal line for a touchdown with nine seconds to play.
All Wheaton needed was the extra point to tie the game and send it into overtime. But Hibben celebrated his touchdown by spiking the ball, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Wheaton's first attempt at a 35-yard PAT kick missed, but the referees called offsetting penalties. A second attempt went wide right.
"That one is going to hurt for a long time," Swider said, adding he never considered going for 2 points and the win, with or without the 15-yard penalty. "… It's just hard to swallow."
From the start, however, it didn't look like the Thunder's day. Despite having allowed just 6.8 points a game on defense, the best in any division of NCAA football, the Thunder fell behind 14-0 after one quarter. By halftime St. John's led 21-7.
"I told them in this locker room at halftime that I didn't think they were playing the way the could've," Swider said.
The Thunder responded coming back to tie the game at 21, then again at 27 after both teams missed extra-point kicks.
It seemed like momentum was on Wheaton's side.
"Oh, yeah, without a doubt," said Wheaton receiver Phillip Nichols. "Till I think turnovers kind of squelched that momentum."
One fumble came with the Thunder driving and inside the Johnnies' 10-yard line. Another fumble, near midfield, not only stopped a Wheaton drive. The Johnnies took the ball and scored immediately on a 56-yard pass play.
St. John's senior quarterback Jackson Erdmann, last year's Gagliardi Award winner and a semifinalist again this year, threw 5 touchdown passes and completed 27 of 38 passes for 407 yards.
"Nobody can question how tough these kids are. Nobody can question how they endured," Swider said. "We just came up a play short. And there were a lot of those plays. Any one of 20 plays."
"I think we'd do anything to get them back," added junior linebacker Ryan Schwartz. "That's for sure."