*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – As the saying goes, football is a game of inches. Even across a 100-yard field, each inch matters, and that proved true in November 2019 when University of Chicago hosted Monmouth College.
The game had plenty of significance attached. It was Senior Day for UChicago's 20-member graduating class, and first place in the Midwest Conference South Division was on the line. Whoever won this game had the inside track to the MWC Championship Game, where an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs was the reward. For UChicago, the potential for its first postseason berth in the modern era was in play.
In a game full of dramatic moments and momentum swings, the deciding play happened at the goal line as the Maroons absorbed a 21-20 loss to Monmouth in overtime.
Heading into the showdown, Head Coach Chris Wilkerson knew his coaching staff and players understood what was at stake and were motivated accordingly. "Everyone in the program knew it was Senior Day and first place in the MWC South Division was on the line," he said. "We had continued to improve every week and had a great week of preparation. There was great energy and enthusiasm the entire week leading up to the game."
A battle in the trenches loomed. The teams boasted the second and third best rushing defenses in the conference – they combined to allow a mere 3.2 yards per carry on the season. Consistent blustery wind at Stagg Field that Saturday afternoon meant more ground-and-pound was in store. A total of 97 rushing attempts dwarfed the 39 pass attempts.
Points were at a premium all day long as both defenses stalled out drives once they got into scoring range. The first touchdown of the game didn't occur until midway through the second quarter. With a two-headed approach at quarterback, the Fighting Scots instead opted to lean heavily on running back Devin Lawrence to move the chains. Lawrence toted the ball 34 times for 165 yards and all three Monmouth touchdowns on the day. His first score came on a four-yard carry with 8:51 remaining in the second quarter.
UChicago found an answer in the final minute of the first half. After six-straight rushes got the Maroons within striking distance, quarterback Marco Cobian found wide receiver Caden Kalinowski streaking up the left sideline and completed a 27-yard touchdown throw. The ensuing extra point was no good as Monmouth led 7-6 with 24 seconds left on the game clock.
The Fighting Scots lined up for a 46-yard field goal attempt to end the half. But UChicago defensive tackle Jackson Ross penetrated right up the middle and blocked the kick to prevent a momentum swing heading into halftime.
However, Monmouth provided a rebuttal on the first possession of the second half. Lawrence punched the ball in from one yard out to make the score 14-6 in favor of the visitors. After an exchange of fumbles on consecutive plays, the action died down until the fourth quarter.
Two minutes into the fourth quarter, Monmouth elected to attempt another long field goal, this time from 45 yards. It ended with the exact same result as Ross batted the ball down. All told, UChicago's special teams unit blocked six kicks over the course of the season.
The Maroons immediately responded with an 11-play, 69-yard scoring drive to tie the game up at 14-14. Wide receiver Dante Nepa nabbed a 17-yard gain on third down and long, shortly followed by six-straight runs that gobbled up 53 yards. Running back Nick D'Ambrose made the one-yard scoring plunge and Nepa caught the ensuing two-point conversion pass.
The fourth quarter remained scoreless from there. Lawrence was stonewalled on a fourth-down carry deep in UChicago territory, and Monmouth followed up with an interception. Overtime loomed.
Monmouth got the ball first in overtime, and Lawrence delivered the go-ahead score with a 25-yard touchdown run. The pressure was on the Maroons. Only a touchdown would do or the game was over. On third-and-goal, Kalinowski came up clutch again, this time toting a jet sweep across the goal line from seven yards out.
Now there was a decision to be made: kick the extra point to continue the contest, or end it right there with a two-point conversion attempt. The Maroons rolled the dice and went for two.
A bit of misdirection on the right side set up a pass play into the left flat, which was caught by offensive tackle Mike Hiestand. He was met at the goal line by a defender, who jarred the ball loose just as Hiestand stretched the ball out reaching for the end zone. The ball bounced off the pylon and went out of bounds. The referees ruled the ball did not break the plane of the goal line, which ended the game in Monmouth's favor.
"We were very proud of how the team handled themselves during the entire game," Wilkerson said. "It was full of momentum swings and they all maintained their composure the whole way through. We knew after they scored, if we scored we were going to go for the win. It was a play we had been practicing all year and we executed it but just came up an inch short."
The final stats in the box score saw Monmouth gain 352 yards compared to 345 yards for UChicago. The Maroons tallied 256 rushing yards (5.8 yards per carry) while the Fighting Scots posted 217 rushing yards (4.1 YPC). Running back Michael Martinson led the way with 124 yards on 15 carries (8.3 YPC). Defensively, Ross collected a career-high 18 tackles to go with his two blocked kicks.
Despite the heartbreaking finish, the Maroons rallied back the next two weeks. They held off Illinois College 20-14 on the road, then finished third in the MWC with a 35-21 victory against Lake Forest College. UChicago concluded the season with a 6-3 record.
"I knew it was a tough way to lose the game but we left everything we had on the field," said Wilkerson. "I was most proud of the seniors' ability to bounce back and finish the season strong after a very tough loss. They showed great commitment and courage to put it behind us and finish!"