WU shuts out Illinois Wesleyan with solid rushing, stellar defense
Coming into Saturday’s rain-soaked match in Bloomington, Ill., Washington University and Illinois Wesleyan University had been locked in a 9-9 tie all-time. Ever since the teams’ first matchup in 1899, neither one had the overall upper hand. That changed on Saturday, as the Bears blew away the Titans, 21-0, to improve to 5-2 on the year.
Wash. U. focused on its ground game, with two rushing touchdowns providing the bulk of the team’s scoring. That offensive strategy represented a shift from the norm—coming into the game the Bears had averaged 301 yards per game passing and just 175 rushing—but the rain, which did not let up throughout the game and coupled with wind chills in the 30’s, necessitated a different approach to the game.
Midway through the first quarter, an 18-yard pass from senior quarterback Johnny Davidson to senior wide receiver Nick Watts highlighted a 60-second drive that brought Wash. U. 35 yards to score. Junior running back Emmanuel Ebirim had the finishing touch, a four-yard rushing touchdown with 6:35 to play in the first. Ebirim ended up surpassing the century mark with a career-high 102 rushing yards on the day.
A couple of exchanges later, sophomore linebacker John Christensen forced a fumble, allowing Davidson to start a drive at the Illinois Wesleyan seven yard line. Davidson promptly took matters into his own hands, rushing six easy yards himself to double the lead with under a minute to play.
The final score of the game came during Wash. U.’s first drive of the second quarter when Davidson connected with sophomore wide receiver Jared Harrison for a 28-yard touchdown. Davidson finished with 54 yards on the day, as the Bears kept the ball out of the air, attempting just eight passes over the course of the game.
Beyond having an offense that capitalized on its opportunities—the Titans had handed Wash. U. the ball inside the Illinois Wesleyan 35 yard line on all three of the Bears’ scores—Wash. U.’s success came from a defense that had clamps on the Titans throughout. Forcing Illinois Wesleyan to punt nine times throughout the course of the game and limiting them to 161 yards of total offense, it was rare for the Titans to gain any kind of advantage against the brick wall that was the Wash. U. defense. The Bears’ shutout marks their first since the 2013 season, when they beat Case Western Reserve University 29-0.
Christensen led the defensive output with a career high of 16 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a sack and his first career interception. All in all, the Bears sacked the Titans’ quarterback twice and intercepted him four times, a season-high for the Wash. U. defense. They also forced four fumbles, recovering two, which matched the number they had gotten prior to the game.
Sophomore linebacker Anthony Brown emphasized the importance of the Bears’ rushing defense as a means of preventing the pass as well. “If you want to throw the ball, go ahead, we’ll let you try,” he said. “We were committed to ‘You’re not going to run the ball and if you try to throw it, good luck.’”
The Bears’ special teams unit also had a large impact on the game, as the average starting position granted to the Titan offense was their own 19-yard-line, which definitely had an effect on the Titans’ lackluster ability to get down the field and score. Davidson punted 379 yards over ten punts and had four punts inside the Titans’ 20-yard-line.
As the season comes to a close with three regular season games remaining before the start of the playoffs, several players reflected on where the team stands.
“I think this last weekend was a huge win for us,” sophomore running back Matt Moore said. “Winning against Wesleyan was huge just for confidence going into these last three games.”
“I think it’s been a great year so far, we’ve definitely hit our bumps in the road with the Wheaton and North Central game[s], but we learn from them, and I thought that showed this week,” freshman wide receiver Cole Okmin said. “We played a great team and we still played a great game all around and ended up winning.”
The Bears host Augustana College on Saturday at 1 p.m.