Sometimes adversity can be good for a football team -- even the kind that's self-inflicted.
Wheeling saw a 14-point fourth quarter lead disappear and then fumbled twice late in the game in its own territory. Yet the Wildcats (2-2) mustered up the defense to stop Hoffman Estates both times to force overtime with the teams tied at 20.
One last defensive stand in overtime stopped the Hawks (0-4) inside the 1-yard line and gave Wheeling the ball and momentum. A third-and-10 pass from sophomore Amani Dennis to Mike Yoshino near the pylon in the front right corner of the end zone gave the host Wildcats the 26-20 victory.
"Coach tells me not to aim the ball," Dennis said of his first-ever game winning play. "All I did was play catch, and Mike made the play."
"We could tell from their tendencies that would be open," Yoshino said.
"We created a lot of adversity, but with the game on the line, the kids responded," said Wheeling coach Brent Pearlman. "The defense got a little personality, stopping those guys in the overtime.
"They were feeding off the good things that happened," Pearlman said. "Through all that adversity, we found a way to win."
On fourth-and-goal from the 2, Noah Ihde made the first contact on Hoffman quarterback Eric Brooks, and a swarm of teammates helped make sure Brooks didn't score.
How the game got as far as overtime is a story in big plays and stumbles.
Wheeling and Hoffman traded big-play touchdowns in their first possessions. Wheeling got on the board first when Isaac Branch (16 carries, 169 yards) broke free for a 70-yard scoring burst with 10:15 left in the first quarter.
Hoffman countered when Kabrian Johnson (11 carries, 101 yards) raced untouched for a 68-yard score on its third play from scrimmage at the 8:37 mark.
Wheeling's next two scores came about via the fumble recovery route.
Ihde fell on the ball in the end zone after Mike Yoshino fumbled at the 1 yard line, putting the Wildcats ahead 13-6 with 4:18 remaining in the half.
A bad snap to Hoffman punter Zach Hommowun allowed Wheeling's Sal Dominguez to recover the ball in the end zone to give Wheeling a 20-6 lead with 3:00 left in the third quarter.
Here is where Hoffman responded to its adversity, and in a big way.
Brooks (12-of-24 for 175 yards) connected on a pair of touchdown passes on consecutive possessions, the first a 37-yarder to running back Keegan Mugerditchian with 9:09 left and the tying points and 2-point conversion coming on a 75-yard bomb to Mike Jackson followed by a Brooks-to-Jackson PAT, tying the game with 6:10 remaining.
"We've shown some fight," Hoffman coach Eric Ilich said. "When kids cry after a game like this, it means a lot to the coaches because it shows they care."
The Wildcats showed their mettle on the next two defensive series, both of which followed on the heels of fumbles on their first play of each possession.
Both times, Wheeling's defense stymied the Hawks on a pair of fourth-down plays, once on the Wheeling 26 and later on the 27.
A short punt gave the visitors one last possession, but the Wheeling defense did the job one last time before the overtime.
"(The defense) knew what we had to do," defensive lineman Mike Martinez said.
"The defense stepped up absolutely huge," Mike Yoshino said. "We're pretty calm and collected. We kept our cool and came through."