Winning with Willis
HOUGHTON, Mich. – Darius Willis pulled down two second half touchdown receptions and lifted Michigan Tech football to a season opening victory over Wisconsin-Platteville 23-13 Thursday night at Kearly Stadium in front of 1,933 fans.
The game began as a defensive showdown and MTU secured a 7-0 lead at halftime, thanks to Steele Fortress on a three-yard quarterback keeper. After the break, Willis came alive with a 31-yard endzone catch in the third quarter that electrified the crowd.
"Darius is a dynamic player," said head coach Steve Olson. "We need him to go out and make some big plays. He got behind the defense a couple of times tonight and the catch he made in the back of the end zone on the pass from Will (Ark) was tremendous. We have to continue to find different ways to get him the ball."
Willis ended with three catches for a team high 59 yards receiving as the Huskies moved to 1-0 in non-conference play. It was the first game under the lights at Kearly Stadium since the Miner's Cup game in 2017.
Michigan Tech will journey to Division I St. Thomas next Saturday, September 10. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The Huskies received the kickoff and Ark made progress on the ground for a pair of first downs at quarterback. The Huskies tried a pair of long pass plays to Willis and Ethan Champney before they surrendered on fourth down. A strong punt by Andrew Schweigert pinned the Huskies at their own six-yard line, eventually forcing a stunted punt out of the back of the endzone by Brenden Lach.
The Pioneers used their strong field position to attempt a 51-yard field goal, which clanked off the right upright to begin the second quarter and the game remained scoreless. Trading punts to the midway point of the second quarter, the Huskies used sacks by Josh Cribben and Marc Sippel on fourth down to pin Wisconsin-Platteville inside their own five.
Following a 44-yard punt, the Huskies began their next drive at the 36-yard line. Will Marano ran it deep into Platteville territory for 16 yards on first down and quarterback Steele Fortress's 30-yard pass to Ethan Champney fell incomplete. However, UWP was flagged for pass interference on the play, which extended the drive.
With new life, Fortress found Emmett Boehler for 26 yards up the left side out of bounds, putting the Huskies solidly in the red zone at the five. After a failed pitch attempt resulted in no gain, freshman quarterback Drew Collins held the ball for two-yards in his first appearance as a Husky. Steele Fortress came back in and ran around the right edge and across the line with 10 seconds remaining before halftime.
Emmett Boehler and Ethan Champney tallied 26 receiving yards apiece through the opening 20 minutes and three MTU quarterbacks combined for 61 yards through the air. The Huskies continuously pushed the Pioneers back for negative 32 yards rushing while quarterback Michael Priami found a positive 47 yards to four different wide outs on pass plays.
Tech forced a punt attempt on Wisconsin-Platteville's first set of downs in the third quarter but the snap sailed over Schweigert's head and out of the back of the endzone, resulting in the Huskies' first safety since 2017 (Hillsdale).
The Huskies marched six plays for 61 yards over 3:25 on the ensuing offensive drive, and capped it off with a 31-yard completion in the back, center of the endzone to Willis after the ball deflected off teammate Brandon Michalak's fingertips.
"I knew we were both in the area and I saw it was going to be a jump ball situation so I waited for it and the ball ended up right in my hands. I just juggled it, caught it, and, six," Willis chuckled.
The Pioneers answered eight plays later. Running a no-huddle offense in shotgun formation, Nathan Shackelford completed a pass down the middle of the field to Lucas Peterson for a nine-yard touchdown and ran the clock to 6:43 in the third quarter as Tech continued to hold on 16-7.
The Huskies turned over the Pioneers on their own 27-yard line when Shackelford bobbled a low snap and Marc Sippel pounced on it with under five minutes remaining in the third. Sippel finished with five unassisted tackles and 1.5 sacks for MTU.
Willis hauled in his second touchdown catch of the game with 56 seconds left in the quarter as Ark rolled away from pressure to his right and tossed it nine yards. The teams exchanged punts to start the fourth quarter and Wisconsin-Platteville tightened the score after a five play, 70-yard possession finished on Shackelford's nine-yard touchdown pass to Lucas Peterson.
Then, with 1:40 to play in the game, Brandt Stare made an eight-yard touchdown catch from Shackelford and the Pioneers recovered an onside kick attempt.
The Huskies stopped their momentum and kneeled in victory formation in the waning seconds after forcing a turnover on downs.
Marano led the Huskies with 48 rushing yards on 17 attempts. Boehler finished with 13 yards on six attempts at the line of scrimmage. Sippel led the team in tackles and Hunter Buechel collected 7.0 tackles for second.
UP NEXT: Thursday marked the first meeting between the two teams and the Pioneers finished 4-6 in 2021 as a member of Division III football. Wisconsin-Platteville (0-1) hosts Bethel University next Saturday while the Huskies are on the road until September 24 against Saginaw Valley State.