Freshman Torii Hilbert came to Ohio Wesleyan as a wide receiver. But, he’s made his impact at cornerback.
Hilbert had two picks to go with two touchdown grabs by senior wideout Ross Hickenbottom to lead Ohio Wesleyan to a 28-21 NCAC football win over Hiram Saturday afternoon at Selby Stadium.
Hilbert’s two interceptions came on back-to-back possessions in the second half — part of four straight possessions the Battling Bishops’ defense stopped Hiram in the red zone to preserve the victory.
The Long Beach native made his debut at cornerback in last week’s 25-17 win over Kenyon.
“Most of it has been making a name for myself,” Hilbert said. “I’m from (California), so most people don’t know who I am.”
His three interceptions in the last two games have already given him the team lead.
“We’re dumb if we don’t (give him a shot),” OWU coach Tom Watts said. “He’s tough … he’s got good ball skills. He’s just a good athlete. He’s fearless and things don’t get to him.”
Hiram was thriving on a 48-yard march in the third quarter when Hilbert stepped in front of a Domenic Paolo pass and returned it 20 yards to the OWU 29 to preserve a seven-point lead for the Bishops (3-3, 3-2).
“There’s only certain routes that receivers can do,” Hilbert said. “So, I just put myself in the receiver’s shoes and basically anticipate the ball.”
The Terriers moved to the OWU 10 on the next possession on the strength of four consecutive Paolo completions.
Senior linebacker Brad Dotson appeared to end the threat when he jumped a quick slant and rumbled 56 yards on the return only to have it called back because of an offside penalty.
Hilbert came through with a leaping interception in the back of the end zone to end the threat.
“We stress a lot about turnovers,” Hilbert said. “I know my ability to read the ball. When I get those interceptions, it’s another opportunity for our offense to score.”
Hiram had two more fruitless scoring drives end in the red zone in the fourth quarter. One ended on downs and the other ended when senior defensive tackle Beau Michel forced a Paolo fumble that was recovered by Dotson.
“(Our defense was) tough … they compete,” Watts said. “Earlier in the season, we were really playing as parts and now we’re playing as a whole defense.”
Meanwhile, Hickenbottom jump-started the offense after it had stalled for much of the first half following a 20-play, 78-yard opening drive that was capped by a TraVon Wilkes 1-yard touchdown.
“He’s a competitor and he plays his butt off,” Watts said. “He’s just a good kid and he does a really good job for us.”
Senior quarterback Dominick Orsini found Hickenbottom, who broke a tackle and went 19 yards down the left sideline to the Hiram 26 on OWU’s final possession of the first half.
The duo hooked up again two players later when Hickenbottom outleaped a Terrier defender in the back corner of the end zone to haul in a 26-yard touchdown pass from Orsini with 2 seconds left in the half. The Bishops took a 14-7 lead to the locker room.
Orsini connected with Hickenbottom on three straight passes totaling 62 yards on OWU’s first possession of the third quarter. Cheyne Lacanaria capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown catch to push the Bishops’ lead to 21-14 with 10:45 left in the third.
“The corner was playing soft and we had room to get our slot in there and block him outside so I could get the lane open,” Hickenbottom said. “It just kept working – they didn’t want to guard it, I guess. So, we just kept throwing it and eating up yards.”
Senior receiver Wyatt Griffith hauled in back-to-back receptions, including a 45-yard haul to get OWU down to the Hiram 14, setting up another Orsini to Hickenbottom quick-hitter for a touchdown to push the lead to 28-14 with 6:27 left in the third.
All told, Hickenbottom caught nine passes for 141 yards — an effort which comes a week after his career-high 13-catch performance.
“They just called my number and I just answered,” Hickenbottom said. “It’s expected, so nothing special.”
There was no quarterback competition this week as the senior Orsini played from start to finish after freshman signal-caller Jax Harville was forced out with a knee injury. Watts said he’d be evaluated again Monday to determine his status going forward.
Orsini was an efficient 25-for-33 for 272 yards and three scores.
“When you have more than one quarterback that you can trust, it’s a good thing to have,” Watts said.
Paolo threw for 334 yards on 23-of-48 passing and a couple of scores to lead the Terriers. He connected with Miguel Hernandez (60 yards) and David Perkins (15 yards) on scoring plays in the second quarter.
Joshua Philander led the way with nine catches for 166 yards to lead the Terriers (1-5, 1-4) and Isaiah Jones rushed for a game-high 60 yards on 12 carries.
Akili Tate made it interesting when he blocked a Richard Poutier punt that was scooped up by Dan Hernandez and returned 16 yards for a touchdown with 1:24 left to cut the deficit to 28-21.
The ensuing onside kick went out of bounds and OWU knelt to run out the clock.
OWU travels to Greencastle next week to take on DePauw in NCAC action. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
Ohio Wesleyan 2, Allegheny 0.
Ohio Wesleyan 2, Allegheny 0.
Wheaton 3, Ohio Wesleyan 2; Calvin 3, Ohio Wesleyan 1.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.