TERRE HAUTE - It might have been 652 days since the last Wabash football game, but there was an air of familiarity in the Little Giants 33-23 season-opening win over Rose-Hulman.
Two mantras that always have been the fabric of Wabash football made the trip to Terre Haute.
Wabash always fights and Wabash usually wins.
The defense gave up five big plays but almost nothing on 71 others.
The offense zigged instead of zagged a couple times, the Fightin’ Engineers committed to stopping the run game, so the passing game had to adjust a bit, but adjust they did, as the offense found the end zone five times.
The outcome was a comfortable win for the Little Giants, in front of a packed visitor stands and sideline.
“There is nothing better than a first-game win,” Wabash coach Don Morel said, clearly enjoying a night on the sidelines after a two-year hiatus.
It was a come from behind win for the Little Giants, who played Rose-Hulman for the first time since 1997 and now lead that series 37-9-3.
The Engineers picked off a Liam Thompson pass on the third Wabash possession, and returned the pick to the Little Giants 7 yard line, but had to settle for a field goal, setting the tone for the Wabash defense all rainy night.
The visitors then scored two TDs in the first quarter, added another in the second and two more in the third to post the 33 and never trail again.
Thompson, the junior quarterback from Indianapolis North Central, who was NCAC Newcomer of the Year in 2019, made up for the pick by throwing for three of those touchdowns, finishing the game 19-of-31 for 340 yards. He found seven different receivers, led by Jackson Claybourne (Springfield. OH), who had four grabs for 68 yards and two scores.
Thompson was also the leading rusher, picking up 87 yards and a TD. The Little Giants ran for 124 yards.
Preseason First-team All-American Joey Annee picked up from his 2019 NCAC Special Teams Player of the Year performance by dropping five of his seven punts well inside the 20 when the offense faltered.
“The most dominant player of the game was Joey Annee, our punter, who moved the field over and over,” Morel said of the senior from Bishop Chatard. “He’s a kid with all kinds of expectations on him, and some how he exceeds them.”
Annee’s 73-yard kick early in the fourth quarter, a career-best, moved the line of scrimmage from the Wabash 15 to the Rose-Hulman 12.
With Annee putting the Fightin’ Engineers in poor field position, the Little Giant defense made the most of it for most of the night.
Five chunk plays picked up 193 pass yards for Rose-Hulman and were the big factor in all three of their touchdowns.
Taking those five plays and those yards away, the Little Giants gave up only three yards a play for the other 71 snaps.
“The defense did come through,” Morel said. “They gave up a couple of big plays that (still) drives us nuts.”
Seth Buresh (Holland, MI) led the way with seven tackles and one of the two Wabash sacks. Jose Franco (Bronx, NY) had six tackles and one of the two Little Giants interceptions, picking his fourth career pass.
Jamari Washington (Hammond, IN) picked up his first career sack and Avery Epstein, a freshman from Jacksonville, FL, had four tackles, a pass defensed and an interception in his first game.
Rose-Hulman finished with 404 yards of total offense.
Dion Andrew was 24-of-47 passing for 341 yards, three TDs and the two picks. Adam Tice-Saliu had seven receptions, Noah Thomas had 94 receiving yards and Daniel Huery had two of the three scores. Shane Welshans, a second-team All-American in spring games earlier this year, was limited to 27 yards on 14 carries.
“Clearly at times we looked like a team that had not played in two years,” Morel noted, “and there are plenty of things to fix and clean up, but we will. We’re going to be fine.”
The Little Giants hit the road for one more game before opening the new Little Giant Stadium and dedicating Frank Navarro Field on Sept. 18. They have a trip to Hiram next Saturday to open NCAC action. Wabash was voted the preseason favorite to repeat as champions by the coaches.