BOURBONNAIS — When Olivet Nazarene University running back Aaje Grayson and his Tigers teammates were watching the Siena Heights offense attempt to muster up a late drive to tie or take the lead near the end of Saturday’s game in Bourbonnais, the New York native and bellcow back never lost faith in his defense, even as the Saints moved the ball into Tigers’ territory.

“I was telling the guys on the sidelines the defense was going to come through because I believed in them,” Grayson said. “We have some dogs on defense; they come through a lot for us, and I just trusted them.”

Grayson was right to go with his heart, as the Tigers defended a pair of passes from their 45-yard line on third and fourth downs to give the offense the ball back with less than three minutes to go, when Grayson and company picked up the necessary yardage to ice the clock on a 20-17 Tigers victory.

The Olivet defense, which led the Mid-States Football Association in defensive scoring last season, was shell-shocked after a 52-yard kickoff return by Eric Williams to open the game was followed up two plays later by a 43-yard touchdown catch by Williams from Hayden Lehman.

But the Tigers’ defense buckled down, as the only other time they allowed the Saints in the red zone was off of an interception, with the Saints’ only other touchdown coming in a 19-yard drive off of it a minute into the second quarter.

Tigers linebacker Jason Freeman led the defensive charge with 16 total tackles (10 solo), two sacks and five tackles for loss, a statline that gave him NAIA Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“I just really love the game of football,” Freeman said. “Being able to come out here Saturdays and do what I do is a blessing.

“Every time I know I come out here and make a play is satisfying for myself, and I know I’m doing the team a favor by making plays.”

It didn’t take long for the Tigers’ special teams to show improvement after a big kickoff return to open the game, as Kole Murlin fell on a punt that was blocked by Damien Savage at the Saints’ 21-yard line.

Grayson found purple for the first time of the season not long after. He caught a 27-yard reception from quarterback David Hutton before scampering in from 9 yards out to put the Tigers on the board five minutes into the game.

“[The offensive line and I] were telling the team we had it and would get right,” Grayson said. “We did, and we came through.”

Both defenses, which entered Saturday’s season-opener with much acclaim after returning significant experience last season, took over for much of the second quarter, with the Saints’ touchdown in the second and a 50-yard Bryce Deguira field goal to end the half serving as the second quarter’s only scores.

The Tigers claimed their first lead of the game on the opening drive of the second half, which was highlighted by a 51-yard completion from Hutton to Brian Jenkins. Grayson capped off the five-play, 78-yard drive with his second score of the game, this time from 7 yards out to make it a 17-14 game.

Deguira nailed a 21-yard field goal with 13:39 remaining to put the Tigers up 20-14, with the Saints and kicker Anthony Secchi countering with a 43-yard boot to make it 20-17.

The Tigers saved arguably their most impressive drive for the fourth quarter, taking over at their own 23 with 10:32 on the clock and getting all the way down to Siena Heights’ 5-yard line, a drive that eventually ended five-and-a-half minutes later on a missed 22-yard field goal.

But the Tigers responded defensively yet again. After the Saints got just past midfield and started a fresh set of downs at the Olivet 47-yard line, Lehmann was forced to throw a pass away after being hurried by Grant Mahnke. On third down, Lehmann went deep to Williams inside the red zone, but it was broken up by Patryk Rayczek and Lance Walker.

On fourth down, Lehmann found a target on his sideline, but the receiver was ruled out of bounds as the Tigers took control for the final time before preserving their win.

“I think we just had that 1-0 mentality and just kept playing, playing, playing,” Tigers coach Erich Hehman said. “In the second half, we put [the Saints] on their heels, and then we just made some mistakes ... but we put them on their heels in the second half, and that was a big key.”

STAT BOOK

Hutton completed 25-of-39 passes for 312 yards and two interceptions. Grayson had 67 yards and his two rushing scores on 17 carries and added four catches for 51 yards. Jenkins had three catches for a team-high 97 yards.

UP NEXT

The Tigers are off this weekend before they travel to Indiana Wesleyan at 5 p.m. Sept. 18.

Mason Schweizer is an award-winning reporter who has been with the Daily Journal since 2017 and sports editor since 2019. Save for time at the University of Illinois and Wayne State College, Mason is a lifelong area resident.