HILLSDALE, MICH. – Sometimes, football wins are easy.
Other times, they need to be grinded out.
Saturday at Frank "Muddy" Waters Stadium in the Traveling Trophy game against Hillsdale, Ashland University's football team, ranked 24th in the country, earned a hard-fought 17-7 victory to improve to 6-1 overall and in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Coupled with Ohio Dominican's 34-19 home loss to Ferris State in a matchup of nationally-ranked teams Saturday, the win puts AU in a tie for first place in the GLIAC South Division.
Ashland's victory is its fourth consecutive overall and second in a row on the road.
The Chargers fall to 2-5 overall and 2-4 in the GLIAC.
Senior tailback Anthony Taylor got things going after both teams traded opening possessions, bursting up the middle on a 66-yard run– a run which made Taylor the first player in program history to go past the 4,000-yard mark for a career. That set up fellow tailback Vance Settlemire, a sophomore, for an 11-yard touchdown run just two plays later for a 7-0 AU lead just 4:59 into the contest.
The Eagles extended their lead to 10-0 with 5:18 to go in the opening quarter following a 24-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Anthony McCarthy.
Hillsdale scored its only points of the game with 1:22 remaining in the first on an 18-yard touchdown pitch to running back Jack Wiseman. Ashland still had the advantage, but at 10-7 after the Chargers needed just 38 yards to score.
The Chargers looked as if they were headed to at least a tying score inside of seven minutes left until halftime, but their first loss fumble of the 2014 season gave the ball back to the Eagles. Then, on Hillsdale's next possession, they lost a second consecutive fumble, stopping a possible tying or go-ahead drive.
Thanks to a stiff wind, the game turned into a stalemate into the fourth quarter. But thanks to junior safety Kyle Tomko, that stalemate ended with 9:15 left in regulation. His 61-yard interception-return touchdown – AU's third defensive touchdown of the season – tight-roping down the left sideline put the Eagles on top 17-7.
"You just don't want Hillsdale to hang around to the end, and they always do," AU head coach Lee Owens said. "They just never quit, they'll fight you until the end. You have to wrestle wins away from them. We knew it was going to be a 60-minute game, and we needed somebody to make a play like that at the end, and Kyle did, and that's why we gave them the game ball."
Ashland's defense slammed the door shut with its fourth takeaway of the game – a diving interception by senior linebacker Chris Harvey – with 3:45 remaining.
Taylor had season-highs in carries (28) and rushing yards (183) in the victory, as Ashland ran for 276 yards. Settlemire added 64 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Senior wide receiver Dan Piko caught seven passes for 81 yards.
The Eagles' defense, in addition to forcing the four takeaways, allowed just 254 yards of offense to the Chargers and had three sacks.
"We really played well on defense," Owens said. "That was the story of the game. If you can consistently play great defense, you have a chance to win every week, you have a chance to win championships."
Senior linebacker Cody Bloom had 11 total tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss; Tomko had eight total tackles, a half-tackle for loss and the pick-six and sophomore linebacker Brandon Gency added eight total tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss.
Ashland will play its final regular-season home game in Week 8 against Northern Michigan. The kickoff on Saturday, September 25 at 1 p.m.