After a fumbling on the first play of the second half while trailing DePauw 21-14, the game was destined to go one of two ways. Either the Tigers were about to take the wind out of the Big Red's sails following last week's double overtime win against Ohio Wesleyan, or Denison would respond and further erase the ghosts of losing seasons past.
Thanks to a dynamic quarterback starting just his fifth career game, and a defense that circled the wagons in the second half and pitched a shutout, the latter became reality. For the first time since 1986, a Denison football team is 4-1 following a roller-coaster 42-21 victory over DePauw in front of a large Big Red Weekend crowd at Piper Stadium.
Erasing an early 14-0 deficit isn't easy and it takes big plays from all over the field, but no one played bigger on this day than Brandon Sklenar. Last week the junior QB posted 369 yards of total offense and scored three touchdowns while orchestrating a comeback win for the ages. This week he was an efficient 23-for-28 for 292 yards. He threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers and rushed for 41 yards and two touchdowns.
Surprisingly, the fumble to start the second half didn't affect the Big Red's comeback attempt and that credit goes to the defense. After DePauw took over in Denison territory, on the second play of their drive, linebacker Pat Foley forced Tiger running back Nikko Sannsone to cough up the football on the 19-yard line. Dylan Hinde dove on the loose ball and the stage was set for Sklenar and the Denison offense.
The fireworks started with a 43-yard scoring strike to DuShawn Brown that tied the game at 21-21.
After a DePauw three-and-out, Denison put together an eight play, 55-yard drive that was capped off by a 14-yard TD run by Sklenar.
Once again, it was the defense that limited DePauw to a four-play drive, and despite starting on its own 18-yard line, the DU offense went to work. The seven-play 82-yard drive saw a John Wilson 38-yard run, a key third-down completion by Sklenar to Kyle Green, and a 17-yard TD pass to Hunter Winans on third down with four seconds left in the quarter.
What went from a seven-point halftime deficit was now a 14-point lead heading into the fourth quarter with all of the momentum swung in Denison's favor.
DU failed to score on its first possession in the fourth, but midway through the period another scoring drive that was helped by a pair of DePauw penalties was completed when Sklenar hit senior fullback Jack Varanese for his second TD catch of the season from 15-yards out.
The offense was nearly perfect in the second half, but it was the defense that set the tone and kept the game from turning into a track meet. In the third and fourth quarters, DePauw managed just 83 total yards. They rushed for just 20 yards in the second half and converted only three first downs, one of which came via a Denison penalty with under two minutes to play and the game in hand.
Senior linebacker Joel Elliott led the way with nine tackles and Foley finished with eight stops and one forced fumble. Joey Lopez finished with 1 ½ sacks while Teddy Kuntz posted six stops and one sack.
Aside from Sklenar's record-setting day, Brown led all receivers with five catches for 93 yards and one score. Wilson carried the ball nine times for 72 yards and Colin Morris finished with 10 carries for 51 yards.
For DePauw, Matt Hunt was 12-for-19 passing for 217 yards and two touchdowns. His favorite target was Barry Flynn who finished with six catches for 67 yards. Sansone toted the ball 18 times for 67 yards.
DU will put its 4-1 record on the line next Saturday at Wittenberg. The Tigers are 3-1 and ranked 18th in the latest D3football.com top-25 poll. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. in Springfield.