Winner to advance to national playoffs

Wabash defenders Owen Volk ’25 and Steven Thomas ’24 take down a DePauw ballcarrier in the 128th Monon Bell Classic at DePauw University on Saturday November 12, 2022. | Courtesy of Communications and Marketing

It’s all or nothing for the Little Giants as they take on the DePauw Tigers in the 129th Monon Bell Classic on Saturday, November 11. They get one shot at accomplishing everything they set out to do this season. In the upcoming iteration of one of college football’s most historic matchups, Wabash can beat DePauw, bring home the Monon Bell and conquer the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC).

Last year’s Bell Game ended in a heartbreaking 49-14 loss down south in Blackstock Stadium. In a game that saw an unstoppable-looking Wabash offense grind to a sudden stop in the snowy conditions, the Tigers claimed the Bell and first place in the conference. This season, Head Football Coach Don Morel and his team set out to flip the script and win back everything they lost — the game, the Bell and the conference crown. 

The Scarlet and White are ranked second in the conference with a 7-2 (6-1 NCAC) record. Ahead of them are the Tigers whose undefeated 9-0 (7-0 NCAC) record is the best in the NCAC. A win in the Bell Game would even the conference records at 7-1 each and give the Little Giants the edge in the head-to-head matchups, which is the first tiebreaker. A loss would send it all the other way.

“We are always expecting big plays to positively affect the game. Being great at tackling and creating takeaways will help us win this game.”

Defensive Coordinator Mike Ridings

While this Little Giant team enters the game with hopes of success, the road to this point hasn’t been easy. A competitive first half against DI opponent Butler University made the eventual 21-47 loss an even harder pill to swallow. Then in their fourth conference game the Wabash team were upset by fourth-place Denison University, who scored late in the fourth quarter to establish a winning 28-24 lead. 

But as difficult as their lows have been, their highs have made it all worth it. Their first game of the season, the Little Giants seized a victory over all-male rival Hampden-Sydney College with last-minute touchdown and a trick play on the two-point conversion that sealed the win. 

A runaway 21-point first quarter against then third-ranked Wittenberg in a must-win game locked the Little Giants into second place, heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. 

“I’m really proud of our team. We’ve had a pretty rugged path to get here. And we’re right where we want to be,” said Morel. 

In their last outing, the Little Giants cruised past Hiram College 52-13 in their final away game of the conference season. The team rang up 604 yards of total offense, while holding Hiram to 289. Quarterback Liam Thompson ’24 connected for 19 passes on 21 attempts for three touchdowns and 354 passing yards. Backup running back Xavier Tyler ’26 led the Little Giants in rushing with 122 yards on 23 attempts. 

During the game, wide receiver Cooper Sullivan ’24 set the Wabash record for career receiving yards, surpassing Mike Funk ’89. Now in his fourth season, Sullivan has accumulated 2,875 career receiving yards.

“Cooper Sullivan’s work ethic has set a standard for all wide receivers for the next 15 years,” said Morel. “His whole body of work is just the reflection of the work ethic he’s had. And I would say for every catch he has, he probably ran that route 150 times.”

Donovan Snyder ’24 gets past the defense in the Little Giants’ game against The College of Wooster on October 7, 2023 at Little Giant Stadium. | Photo by Elijah Greene ’25

The enemy Tigers enter the Bell Game after a Week 10 bye. They’re every bit as good as they were last season, and have handily defeated almost everyone in their path so far. The toughest matchup they’ve seen this season came in their matchup against Wittenberg, where they had to recover from an early deficit in a game that took them into overtime. Their conference-best defense, which has given up only nine touch- downs to conference teams and hard-hitting run game make them a consistent force that can smother weak offense and shatter unprepared defenses.

To bring home the Bell, Coach Morel says his team will need to play a consistent well-rounded game on offense, defense and special teams.

“We’ve lost two games this year to Denison and Butler,” said Morel. “We embrace failure at this place. And I am hoping what we learned in those two games, in all three phases, are going to help us beat DePauw on Saturday. DePauw is a very good team. There’s no hiding that. Defensively, they look like the ’85 Bears. So we’re going to have to play great offense, defense and special teams to have a chance to beat these guys.”

The Wabash team returns the best offense in the NCAC against conference opponents. Their ability to move the ball on the ground and through the air has them entering this game with a real possibility of breaking through the tough Dannie defense.

Between Donovan Snyder ’24 and Cade Campbell ’24, the Little Giants’ running game is a force to reckoned with, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and 227.7 total rushing yards a game. They’ll be asked to stack up against the Tigers’s defensive line that only allows an average of 1.7 yards per carry. This will be one of the matchups that determines whether this game turns into a hard- nosed ground battle or a high-flying contest between the passing game and the Tiger’s aerial defense.

Liam Thompson at quarterback is at the heart of the offense with his passing and scrambling ability. He leads the conference by a wide margin in attempts and completions. His conference-leading 70.6 completion percentage is five percentage points better than DePauw quarterback Nathan McCahill. He is second in the NCAC in passing touchdowns. But this is only because he is second in rushing touchdowns with 10 on the season, making his scrambling one of the best goal line maneuvers of any conference team. His offense leads the conference in first downs and converts at an impressive 57.1% on third down.

At wide receiver, Wabash has two historically great players on the team. All-time leader in receiving yards Cooper Sullivan is Top-10 in the NCAC across most receiving categories, despite sitting out two games earlier in the season. Derek Allen, Jr. ’24 leads the conference in receiving yards this season and is first in yards per game, second in receiving touchdowns and third in total receptions. At tight end, Penn Stoller ’24 is eighth in receiving touchdowns in the conference and has been utilized to great effect against several good teams. Altogether the electric passing game of Wabash should turn out to be the key that gets them past the Tiger’s defense and into the endzone. And while DePauw has excellent third-ranked pass coverage, Thompson and Co. have been able to to score against teams that do it better.

Between Thompson and the Tigers D-line is Wabash’s excellent offensive line. Led by veteran center Joe Mullin ’24, the Scarlet and White Wall has been known to give Thompson an absurd amount of time to survey the field and pick out a target. This will be the toughest conference opponent they face this season.

“[DePauw] knows what’s coming offensively,” Morel said. “It’s easy. Liam Thompson’s been here for years. Cooper Sullivan’s been here for years. Penn Stoller’s been here for years. Derek Allen has been here for years. Donovan Snyder and Cade Campbell have been here for years. Joe Mullin and his crew have been here for three or four years. We’ve done it a bunch.”

Gone are the days of Wabash’s defense ranking near the bottom of the NCAC. Now second-best in the conference Wabash has allowed only 20 touchdowns to NCAC opponents, nine of those coming in the third and fourth quarters of blowout wins.

The run defense, which was second only to DePauw against conference opponents, gives up only 2.6 yards per carry. The team, which has suffered injuries all season, will return in full health for the first time in weeks. If they can keep DePauw from gaining first downs and chewing up the clock on the ground, the Wabash offense will have more opportunities to find the endzone. DePauw is third in third-down conversions.

“We’ve lost two games this year to Denison and Butler. We embrace failure at this place. And I am hoping what we learned in those two games.”

Head Coach Don Morel

The Little Giants are slightly behind against the pass, at fourth in the NCAC. However, they surrender only one more yard per game than the DePauw defense. What gets them is the average yield of a completion, which is 6.7 yards against NCAC opponents. This will be a crucial side of the game for Wabash, who will need to play at their best to avoid giving up the long play.

The Wabash defense is middle-of-the-road in sacks and interceptions. Steven Thomas ’24 is fourth in the conference in sacks and could break through for some big plays in the game. They also have a history of forcing fumbles and getting recoveries in big moments as they did to start the winning drive against Hampden-Sydney or in the third quarter against Denison and in the first quarter onslaught against Wittenberg.

“We are always expecting big plays to positively affect the game,” said Defensive Coordinator Mike Ridings. “Being great at tackling and creating takeaways will help us win this game. DePauw’s offense has been efficient with protecting the ball. We need to be aggressive at creating takeaways.”

On special teams, Wabash has a lot to talk about. Brody Rucker ’26 leads the conference in field goals, going 7-10 on the season with his three misses having come early, before a month-long streak where he’s been 5-5 in five games. The team gives up on 1.3 yards per return on punts, something that will be tested by the Tigers, who are the best punt return team in the conference by a wide margin, compared to teams who tend to go for extra yards rather than signal fair catch.

Wabash football celebrates their win against Oberlin College on September 23, 2023 at little Giant Stadium. | Photo by Elijah Greene ’25

This Wabash team lives on momentum. When the pendulum swings their way, the Little Giants have a propensity to force turnovers and burn defenses to the ground, as they did in the first quarter against Wittenberg.

This momentum might be the Little Giants’ greatest weapon in this game. They have experience playing great teams in big games al- ready. And against some of the better teams they’ve faced all season, momentum has made them look like an unstoppable team for entire quarters. They scored 14 points and got multiple stops against a Division I school in the second quarter against Butler in front of a massive crowd. They’ve played in more competitive games than DePauw has.

“The reason for scheduling Butler was to get us ready for the Bell Game,” said Morel. “So I think that has gotten our team acclimated to that environment. We are going to be ready on Saturday.”

While DePauw has been running up the scores on average teams and padding their record, they’ve only had the chance to play one close game all season. That came against Wittenberg, when the Wittenberg team had the game all but won until they choked, just as they did against Wabash.

Wabash, on the other hand, has been focused on one thing all season. They’ve been in close games against teams, and when they have a big enough lead, they send in the reserves. They go to win against tough competition, not to destroy bad teams. There’s no doubt the Tigers will be ready to play on Saturday. They expect to show up in the biggest game of the year. But when it comes to experience, Wabash has the edge.

The 129th Monon Bell Game will begin at 1:07 p.m. at Little Giant Stadium. Everything rests on this game, between the two best teams in the conference battling it out for the Bell and the NCAC championship.