BOURBONNAIS — After three consecutive seasons with 6-5 finishes, Olivet Nazarene University football coach Eric Hehman and his program have seen the delayed 2021 season as the perfect time to take the next step. If the first two weeks of the season are any indication, that stride is looking lengthy.
Following up their season-opening 62-7 throttling at Missouri Baptist, the Tigers got plenty of playmaking from underclassmen on both sides of the ball in Saturday’s home opener against Indiana Wesleyan University in what became a 44-20 win to give the Tigers their first 2-0 start since 2017.
With 106 points in their first two games, the Tigers have more points in their first pair of games than they did in their first five games last season. David Hutton found Jalen Dunnigan for a nine-yard touchdown pass to cap off a 10-play, 74-yard opening drive from the Tigers and it was on from there, as the team didn’t punt until their final possession of the game and scored points on all but three drives on the day.
Hutton finished the day with 313 yards and two touchdowns through the air on 17-for-26 passing with an additional 81 yards and two more touchdowns on the ground. Hehman said that Hutton’s versatility as a runner and passer, paired with his knowledge and awareness of the game, make him a nightmare for opposing defenses.
“David’s a sharp guys as an engineering major, one of the best athletes on the team and he can really throw the ball ...,” Hehman said. “Dual-threat quarterbacks are the hardest position to defend in football ... you almost have to add an extra man and try to play with 12 guys out there.”
And it wasn’t just Hutton who excelled offensively. Freshman running back Max McClendon, the week one Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week, had 117 total yards Saturday and sophomore transfer Aaje Grayson added 31 yards and a score.
With two new running backs leading the backfield and an offensive line with four new starters, the Tigers’ have quickly had answers about their ground game answered.
“They’re all talented guys, it’s just about getting experience,” Hehman said. “We went into our first game and then into this game trying to figure out who we are, figuring out what we can do, and it’s pretty good.”
The same could be said for the Tigers defense, which held Indiana Wesleyan to almost 200 yards less of total offense (519 yards for the Tigers compared to 326 for the Wildcats) and just seven points in the second half.
Hehman said the biggest change he’s noticed on his 2021 team’s defense has been in the secondary, where defensive backs, mostly underclassmen, have been able to cover more ground and make more plays, particularly in passing situations.
“The defense played great and was really flying to the ball,” Hehman said. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is our defensive backs are more athletic. There have been a lot of third-and-longs where they’ve been able to get to the ball right in time to break up the pass or potentially get [an interception].”
With underclassmen and new players filling several roles on the team this year, Hehman said the season being delayed due to COVID-19 has been a huge advantage for the Tigers in their successful start.
“We’re very young, maybe one of the youngest teams in the conference,” Hehman said. “I think the future is bright and having that fall that was like an extra spring ball season, even more than a spring season, being outdoors in the cold, has made a big difference.”
Scott Graziano had 129 of Hutton’s 313 yards on five catches, including a 50-yard score. Grayson added 59 yards through the air. Josh Davidson led the defense with 12 total tackles.
The Tigers have another matchup with Missouri Baptist Saturday, this time at Ward Field. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.