Football comeback falls short, drop 14-13 to Westminster in nail-biting defensive showdown


Courtesy of CWRU Athletics

On Saturday Nov. 5, third-year linebacker Sean Torres was one of many CWRU defensive players who faced-off against Westminster’s offense.

Gaurav Hardikar, Staff Writer

Last Saturday, the Case Western Reserve University football team traveled to New Wilmington, Pennsylvania hoping to extend their three-game win streak against the Westminster College Titans. The Titans were on a similar mission, looking to build on their own three-game win streak and show off their top talent on Senior Day.

The two teams featured potent offenses and stout defenses. Entering Saturday’s matchup, the Spartans had been averaging 33 points per game while allowing under 19 points per game. Westminster’s offense, meanwhile, had averaged an inferior 25.1 points per game, but their defense allowed under 12.4 points per game, which would ultimately be the X-factor against CWRU.

The Titans won the toss and elected to defer, making way for the Spartan offense to take the field first in front of a crowd of 1,300. Starting from the CWRU 25-yard line, fourth-year quarterback Drew Saxton got the offense going immediately. The Spartans’ opening possession saw Saxton complete five of seven passes for 66 yards, highlighted by a 22-yard completion to third-year wide receiver Riley Knurek and a 29-yard completion to second-year wide receiver Ethan Dahlem. Unfortunately, the drive stalled following an untimely sack that forced a field goal attempt. Second-year punter Joseph Rhodes V nailed the kick from the 25-yard line to put CWRU on the board 3-0.

The Titan offense started off slowly. Unable to get by the CWRU defense, Westminster went three-and-out, giving the Spartans a chance to tack on some more points. Yet the Titans refused to yield, and the Spartans also punted after three plays. In the next two drives, both teams played for negative yardage with another pair of three-and-outs. The last Spartan punt traveled a mere 10 yards, giving the Titans a shorter field to jumpstart their offense. Starting their drive inside the red zone, Westminster scored the first touchdown of the game on a 13-yard carry by graduate student defensive lineman Brayden Thimons.

The Titans capitalized on the Spartans’ next drive. On the first play of the second quarter, Saxton’s pass was intercepted by third-year defensive back Corte Williams, who took the ball back 33 yards for the defensive touchdown to extend the Titans’ lead to 14-3. 

Quickly in a two-score hole, the Spartans desperately needed offensive production. Though they went three-and-out again, CWRU’s defense held fast and forced the same out of Westminster. The teams traded punts another time before the Westminster defense once again proved themselves the anchor of the team via a strip sack recovered by second-year linebacker Carter Chinn.

Understanding that another Titan touchdown might put the game away early, CWRU’s defense came up big as second-year defensive back Nate Cikalo picked off the Westminster quarterback and returned the interception 9 yards. Neither team picked up another first down before the end of the half as the two defenses continued to put the clamps on their opposing offenses.

Westminster began the second half with the ball and punted again after three plays. In their first drive of the second half, the Spartan offense found their rhythm. Second-year quarterback Ian Kipp entered the game as the Spartans leaned on their run game. Kipp tallied just 7 passing yards on the drive, while fourth-year running back Antonio Orsini racked up 44 rushing yards on five attempts. Kipp ended the Spartan drive by carrying the ball 2 yards into the end zone for a rushing touchdown. The successful extra point kick from Rhodes put the Spartans within four points of Westminster at 14-10.

As the Spartans began to put together a potential comeback, the Titans’ offense continued to struggle, coming up with yet another three-and-out. The defense assuaged the fears of the Westminster fans after a sack, recorded in part by Thimons, forced a punt out of the Spartans. 

In the final drives of the third quarter, neither team’s offenses were able to put together drives of more than 10 yards. Following another Titan punt at the top of the fourth quarter, the Spartans offense once more began to make some headway. However, Titans second-year defensive back Brice Butler stopped the visitors in their tracks by recovering a fumble on a carry by Orsini. Each team punted again, and soon the Spartans found themselves in a four-point deficit with just under eight minutes remaining and the ball in the hands of the other team.

As the Titans began to rely more on rushing the football to run down the clock, CWRU’s defense was looking for a crucial stop. Fortunately, two third-year players, defensive lineman Kaden Tong and linebacker Gabe Troch, delivered tackles on fourth-and-one to force the turnover on downs.

Just outside the red zone, the Spartan offense took the field looking for a quick touchdown. Their struggles continued, but they were close enough for Rhodes to knock down another field goal and cut the Titans’ lead 14-13 with under four minutes to go.

Cikalo once again made a great play, tackling Thimons for a loss of three on the subsequent Westminster possession and forcing a punt. 

With just over two minutes remaining, Kipp and the Spartans offense took the field hoping to put together a game-winning drive. Though the first play proved effective with a 5-yard run from Kipp, a false start and two incomplete passes saw CWRU facing a fourth-and-10 scenario in their own territory. In a do-or-die moment, Kipp delivered an 11-yard strike to fourth-year wide receiver Michael Wojkowski for a critical fourth down conversion that kept the Spartans alive. 

A holding penalty against Westminster and a 4-yard completion from Kipp to third-year quarterback Alex Fromberg brought CWRU 14 yards closer to set up a 47-yard game-winning field goal attempt for Rhodes, who had been perfect all game. However, Rhodes had endured a tiresome game due to a sluggish offense that asked him to punt nine times in addition to his four kickoffs, two previous field goal attempts and the extra point from the lone Spartan touchdown. The fatigue, combined with the pressure of a game-winning field goal try from more than 20 yards further than his successful attempts, proved too much for the young punter, who missed wide left. With only 33 seconds left, the Titans ran out the clock and to seal the 14-13 victory.

CWRU football has much to improve upon offensively as they return home for their final game of the season. Despite the gut-wrenching finish, however, the strong defensive performance should keep spirits high during the Spartans’ preparation for this Saturday’s game against Carnegie Mellon University. CWRU faces a daunting task, as the Tartans are 9-0 and beat their opponents on average by over 15 points per game, but there is no better motivation for the Spartans than the chance to spoil a conference rival’s quest for an undefeated season.