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Butler tops IWU in overtime

WILDCATS: Indiana Wesleyan's Brayden Smith hauls in a 47-yard reception during the Wildcats' 30-27 loss to Butler in Indianapolis on Saturday.

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

INDIANAPOLIS — The road from elation to heart break is sometimes quickly traveled and it was a route Indiana Wesleyan’s football team unfortunately found itself on Saturday night in Butler’s fabled Sellick Bowl.

Brayden Smith’s third touchdown catch of the night on the last play of regulation time and Ben VonGunten’s extra point gained the Wildcats a 24-24 tie sending the game to overtime.

The Wildcats had first possession in the extra session but the NCAA Division I Bulldogs yielded no yards on three plays before VonGunten split the uprights with a 42-yard field goal putting IWU up 27-24 and in position to open its second season with a hard earned win.

But the Wildcats encountered a curve in the road when on its overtime possession, Butler used an end around to wide receiver Stephen Dennis resulting in a four-yard touchdown run on third and goal to snatch away the win, 30-27.

“I told the kids we were in the same spot last year against Taylor and when we got to halftime we felt like we already played two games,” said Wildcats’ coach Jordan Langs. “I told the kids at halftime we feel like we’ve already played two games but you’ve still got more in the tank. I was really proud they came out and showed they had more in the tank.

“I said also the season is long, we’ve got our sights focused on number two right now,” he added, “That’s our number one goal.”

Number two for the ‘Cats is their home opener at 1 p.m. on Saturday against Missouri Baptist, a crossover game in Mid-States Football Association. It will mark the beginning of IWU’s first pursuit of a conference championship, which brings along with it an automatic berth into the NAIA National Championship tournament.

Though the game ended disappointingly for IWU, the Wildcats did a lot of good things in the loss.

IWU’s defense forced and recovered three Butler fumbles. Ishmael Avila finished with nine tackles, three for loss, and one of the ‘Cats two sacks. Isaac Abeo had the first sack and it produced a fumble recovered by Vincent Versteg to set up IWU’s first touchdown of the season.

That first score came on the first play after the turnover, Zack Blair delivered a strike to Smith from 32 yards away and with it a 7-0 lead with just over two minutes to play in the opening quarter.

Blair found Smith on consecutive pass plays early in the second quarter, the first went for a 47-yard gain that set up a 10-yard TD pass on the next putting IWU up 14-3.

Smith ended up with 11 catches and 165 yards receiving to go with his three touchdowns.

“Brayden just shows how good he is,” Langs said.

Butler used a six-play drive that took less than two minutes to score and cut IWU’s lead to 14-10 with only 2:39 to play in the first half.

IWU moved 57 yards in nine plays and ended the first half with a 17-10 lead on VonGunten’s 32-yard field goal as the clock hit zeros.

The Bulldogs started the second half with the ball and an 11-play, 75-yard drive that went more than six minutes and concluded with a six yard pass for quarterback Sam Brown to Brad Huth and a 17-all tie.

Butler took its first lead after an eight play, 82-yard drive capped by Brad Sznajder’s 14-yard TD run with 7:16 remaining in the contest.

The dramatic ending to regulation was set up by an epic 16 play, 75 yard drive for the Wildcats. IWU converted on fourth down three times to set up Smith’s four-yard TD grab as time expired.

Despite the disappointing ending, Langs said there were definitely positives to IWU’s opening night.

“The positives, the fact that this is the first time this defense has played together, and for them to come out and play at the level they played at, I was really impressed,’ he said. “Our offensive line played well. We ran the ball effectively and we passed well for the most part.”

Blair completed 17 of 43 passes for 250 yards but also had two second half interceptions. Varshaun Dixon led IWU’s ground attack with 51 yards on 17 carries.

Butler outgained the ‘Cats 190 to 69 on the ground and 441 to 319 overall.

Since he first set foot on IWU’s campus, Langs’ ultimate goal has been to compete for national championships. The MFSA has produced nine title-winning teams in its 26 years of existence, including six of the last eight champions.

Three of IWU’s opponents over the 10 weeks are ranked in the NAIA preseason top-10, two more are just outside the top 25 and all nine remaining games for the Wildcats are league affairs.

Though the loss to Butler was disappointing, it will be quickly put to rest.

“You don’t have a choice, either you decide to adapt or you die in this league,” Langs said. “We’re going to decide to adapt well and we’re going to show up tomorrow and work really hard.”