It was the proverbial tale of two halves.
Ohio Wesleyan’s football team built a 17-7 first-half advantage behind the passing of sophomore quarterback Mason Espinoza, who threw for two touchdowns before turning the game over to the Battling Bishop defense, which held Denison off the scoreboard until the closing minute of the game in a season-opening 17-14 non-conference victory over the visiting Big Red Saturday night at Selby Field.
“When you look at our early schedule, it was important that we did well in this game,” OWU head coach Mike Hollway said. “In our first four games of the season we play teams that were picked to finish ahead of us in the standings, including Denison, Wittenberg, Wabash and Wooster, so we needed to get off to a good start to build our confidence.”
It didn’t take Hollway’s troops long to get on the scoreboard. Senior free safety Keegan Varner’s interception of junior quarterback Max Paulus’ pass at the Big Red 6-yard line set up Espinosa’s 2-yard scoring strike to sophomore split end Dave Mogilnicki with 11:39 left in the opening quarter.
After play was suspended 30 minutes by lightning with 6:24 remaining in the opening period, The Battling Bishops mounted an 8-play, 90-yard scoring drive ignited by freshman fullback Kevin Herman’s 59-yard scamper on a second-and-19 call for a first down in Denison territory. Espinosa, who was 11-for-19 in the first half for 162 yards, tossed first-down completions of 15 and 16 yards to freshman split end Scott Jenkins before finding Mogilnicki on a 9-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 OWU lead with 10:42 remaining in the second quarter.
“Mason picked right up where he left off last season when he earned All-NCAC Honorable Mention as a freshman,” Hollway said in reflecting back on Espinosa’s freshman campaign when he became the first Ohio Wesleyan quarterback to throw for 2,000 yards (2,055) in a single season. “Mason is certainly one of the keys to our success this season.”
Denison, which defeated Ohio Wesleyan 21-6 last season in Granville, answered with a 9-play, 79-yard drive that ended on Paulus’ 9-yard scoring strike to senior wide receiver Lucas Graham that cut the Bishops’ lead to 14-7 with 8:13 left in the half.
Ohio Wesleyan got on the board with 4:50 left in the half on freshman Miles MacKenzie’s 34-yard field goal to send the Bishops into the intermission with the 10-point, 17-7 lead. MacKenzie was also perfect on both his PAT tries and found the back of the end zone with one of his kickoffs, a rarity in recent OWU seasons.
“Our kicking, which has been a problem area in the past, has greatly improved,” Hollway said.
“We were pleased with out first half effort, especially after losing to Denison last season,” the coach said. “We came out and played with a lot of confidence over the first 30 minutes.”
Ohio Wesleyan struggled to move the ball in the second half, making only one first down. Espinosa was only three for nine with an interception, the Bishops were forced to punt three times and they came up short on one fourth-down call.
But OWU’s defense rode to the rescue. Led by junior defensive end James Huddleston, who sacked Paulus twice, the first on a fourth-and-10 call at the Bishop 30, and sophomore defensive back Seth Swary, who broke up a Paulus pass on a fourth-and-12 call at the Big Red 37, the Bishop defenders kept Denison off the scoreboard. Huddleston totaled four tackies for losses to go with his two sacks.
The Big Red’s final scoring series came in the final 2:22 as Paulus connected on passes of 30 and 48 yards before finding Graham on a 9-yard touchdown pass with 1:11 left in the game.
Statistically, Ohio Wesleyan totaled 200 yards, 193 coming through the air, in 49 snaps, led by Espinosa’s 14-for-28 night behind center. Mogilnicki totaled six receptions for 107 yards while Herman finished with 27 yards rushing in 12 carries. On defense, freshman middle linebacker DaVaughn DuBose led the Bishops with 10 tackles in his first collegiate start. Sophomore cornerback Leonard Gleaves joined Varner with an interception.
Denison’s attack piled up 334 yards and 15 first downs in 72 plays. Paulus connected on 21 of 41 passes for 215 yards with two interceptions, finding senior wide receiver Braden Layer seven times for 103 yards. Junior tailback Sam Fiorini led the Big Red on the ground with 97 yards in 17 carries.
“Overall, I was pleased with our effort,” Hollway said. “We need to go out and build on this win, and become a more consistent football team … but I am very pleased with the progress of our players.”
Ohio Wesleyan leads the all-time series with the Big Red 63-32 with seven games ending in ties.
The Battling Bishops resume NCAC action this Saturday night, entertaining arch-rival Wittenberg in the North Coast Athletic Conference opener for both teams at 7 p.m. at Selby Field.