By Greg Chandler
One week after romping over two-time defending Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion Trine (Ind.) University on the road, the Hope College football team came through with another statement win Saturday in front of a homecoming crowd of more than 2,800 fans at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium.
The Flying Dutchmen rallied from a second-quarter deficit by scoring on four consecutive possessions, and went on to defeat Albion College, 52-33, in the highest-scoring game in the history of their rivalry, which dates back to 1926.
Pictured from left, Connor Mellon and Connor Nemmers
Hope is now 2-0 in the MIAA and 4-1 overall after defeating both second-place teams in the MIAA Preseason Coaches Poll. The Flying Dutchmen are tied for first place in the MIAA standings with Alma College and Olivet College.
"That's not an easy situation, to win like we did last week at Trine, and to come back on our homecoming with Albion coming off a tough loss to Alma," Hope coach Peter Stuursma said. "This one had me nervous all week."
Albion grabbed a 13-7 lead early in the second quarter on a Markell McCoy 3-yard touchdown run. The Britons seemed to be moving the ball at will on the ground, but the Flying Dutchmen soon answered.
After McCoy's touchdown, Hope drove 58 yards in 10 plays to cut the lead to 13-10 on a 24-yard field goal by senior placekicker Sam Allbritten of Warsaw, Indiana (Warsaw HS).
Albion drove to the Hope 34 on its next possession, but a bobbled snap on fourth down led to the Flying Dutchmen taking over on downs.
Hope then put together a methodical 64-yard, 12-play drive, highlighted by a 10-yard run by senior quarterback Mason Opple of Hudsonville, Michigan (Hudsonville HS) on a third-and-9 and a spectacular one-handed catch of an Opple pass by sophomore H-back Lou Baechler of Plymouth, Michigan (Canton HS).
Junior running back Connor Mellon of Adrian, Michigan (Madison HS) finished the drive by powering into the end zone from six yards out with 16 seconds left in the half, and Hope led 17-13 at halftime. It was the first of Mellon's career-high three touchdown runs on the day.
"(Albion is) a very good football team and they played inspired. Coming off that loss to Alma, I knew they'd be ready to roll, especially on our homecoming, trying to do what we did to Trine last week," Stuursma said. "Our guys realized they were in a football game and we've got to turn the tide."
The tide continued to swing toward the orange-and-blue in the second half. Hope needed just three plays after taking the kickoff to strike paydirt again. Opple found senior wide receiver Cooper Cecchini of Jenison, Michigan (Hudsonville HS) wide open for a 49-yard touchdown strike after two Albion defenders collided with each other in coverage.
After the Flying Dutchmen defense forced a three-and-out, Hope drove 54 yards on seven plays for its next score, with Mellon dashing 25 yards for his second touchdown. Hope led 31-13 midway through the third quarter.
Albion (3-2, 0-2 MIAA) would not go quietly. After a Jacob Clark 3-yard touchdown run cut the lead to 31-20, the Britons' defense forced a stop and Hope had to punt. However, it was then that the Flying Dutchmen defense came up with a critical turnover, as senior safety Conner Nemmers of Grand Rapids, Michigan (West Catholic HS) intercepted a Kyle Thomas pass and returned it 16 yards to the Albion 9.
On the next play, Mellon swept around left end for his third touchdown, giving Hope a 38-20 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
"I think the key to the game was us getting to 17 (points) at the end of the first half, with very little time on the clock, and then getting the ball back in the second half (and scoring)," Stuursma said. "It was huge for us."
Hope then put the game away in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run by Opple and a 47-yard TD run by sophomore running back Kenyea Houston of Chicago, Illinois (George Westinghouse Prep).
Hope finished the game with 465 yards of total offense, including 322 yards on the ground on 55 rushing attempts.
Mellon, who had come into the game with only 72 rushing yards on the season, ran for a career-high 124 yards on 17 carries.
Houston also had a career high with 108 yards on 16 carries, his first 100-yard game since the first game of his freshman season last year against Millikin (Ill.)
Opple added 92 yards on the ground on 20 carries, and connected on 8 of 14 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns. He has now thrown 202 consecutive passes without an interception dating back to the fourth week of the 2018 season.
Senior wide receiver Christian Bos of Hudsonville, Michigan (Unity Christian HS) led the receiving corps with five catches for 61 yards.
Defensively, senior linebacker Mason Dekker of Holland, Michigan (West Ottawa HS) led Hope with 10 tackles, including a tackle for loss. Senior defensive back Luke Beckhusen of Coldwater, Michigan (Coldwater HS) added eight tackles and broke up two passes, while Nemmers had six tackles, including a tackle for loss to go along with his interception.
The 52 points by Hope were the most ever scored by the Flying Dutchmen against Albion, the only MIAA program that Hope does not have a winning record against.
The previous high was 48 points in a 48-10 win over the Britons two years ago at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium. The 85 points by the two teams broke the previous mark for most points combined in the rivalry of 77, when Hope defeated Albion 42-35 in 2007 at Sprankle-Sprandel Stadium.
The win was Hope's fourth straight over the Britons. The last time Hope defeated Albion four consecutive times was from 1970-1974, when the Flying Dutchmen defeated the Britons by scores of 42-14, 26-0, 35-29, 18-3 and 17-0.
Combined with the 51-0 win vs. Trine, this is the first time Hope has scored more than 50 points in its first two MIAA games.
Hope is now 55-31-3 in homecoming games, including wins each of the last four years. The 52 points were the third-most by a Hope team in a homecoming game in school history. Hope scored 60 points in a 60-34 win over Alma in 2007 and 55 in a 55-0 shutout of Kalamazoo in 1983.
The Flying Dutchmen travel to Hancock, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, next Saturday for a game against the Lions of Finlandia University. Kickoff is 12 p.m.