By: Sean Neidig, sports information graduate assistant
COLUMBUS, Ohio – As this year's Capital University football team marches its way through the season towards what is hopefully a conference title, the team can look to the past for inspiration.
The 2017 season marks the 30th anniversary of the 1987 Crusaders team that won the Ohio Athletic Conference Championship and made the first NCAA Division III playoff appearance in school history. The 1987 team finished with an overall record of 7-2-2 and went 6-1-1 in the conference.
Ninety-three of the 99 players on the 1987 roster were from the state of Ohio and a majority of them were from the greater Columbus area. The team returned nine offensive starters, including an offensive line made up entirely of seniors. Eight starters returned for the defense. Thirty-five letter-winners returned from 1986 and the team only lost nine. Even though the team had 49 freshman on the roster, the majority of the players who saw significant action were upperclassmen. Twenty-one seniors, 10 juniors and 19 sophomores rounded out the roster and led the team.
That experience was vital for the Crusaders and the '87 team remains one of the most highly-decorated Capital teams of all time with five First-Team All-OAC selections and four players on the second team. Second-year head coach Roger Welsh was named the OAC Coach of the Year, Keith Willike received the Mike Gregory Award as the conference's most outstanding offensive lineman or back, Mike Eberhardt was named the conference's most outstanding defensive lineman by winning the Paul Hoernemann Award and Keith Szanto won the Lee Tressel Award, givento the conference's most outstanding defensive back.
Willike, Eberhardt and Szanto were all honored as athletic All-Americans. At that point, no Capital football team had that many All-Americans on a single team. Only the 2005 and 2006 teams have had more All-Americans in a single season since then.
After finishing 1986 at 4-5 (3-5 OAC), Capital was picked to finish sixth in the conference, even with all of its returning players.
Capital's season started with two ties, the first by a score of 17-17 against Bethany College (W. Va.), the second against Muskingum University, formerly Muskingum College, 10-10.
After those games, the Crusaders won three straight against Ohio Northern University, Marietta College and Otterbein University, formerly Otterbein College, by a combined score of 56-26.
Against ONU, the Capital defense recorded the first of two shutouts that season and the offense put up 25 points. Eberhardt and Szanto both had two interceptions and the team intercepted six passes total. Running back Todd Dunkle rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown.
The team followed that with a 24-20 win over Marietta. Willike caught two touchdown passes from quarterback John Keel.
The next week, Dunkle had a touchdown run that proved to be the difference in a 7-6 win against rival Otterbein.
Capital's lone conference loss came against Wittenberg University. After that loss, the Crusaders won four straight games. Capital beat Heidelberg University, formerly Heidelberg College, by one, 21-20, after being down 20-0 in the third quarter. Willike caught eight balls that game for 206 yards and scored two touchdowns.
Capital followed that win with another nailbiter, a 26-25 win over the University of Mount Union, formerly Mount Union College, the two-time defending OAC champions. The Crusaders racked up 259 rushing yards as a team, headlined by Keel's 61 yards on the ground.
The Crusaders clinched the OAC title with a 16-14 win against Baldwin Wallace University, formerly Baldwin-Wallace College, in the final game of the regular season. Since 1973, Baldwin Wallace was 79-7 in regular season games against OAC teams. Capital got on the scoreboard first thanks to three field goals but the Yellow Jackets answered with two touchdowns to take a 14-9 lead in the fourth quarter. Capital took the lead on a one-yard touchdown run from Mike Burtschy with 11 seconds left in the game. The Crusader defense forced six turnovers in the game.
In Capital's first ever playoff game, the Crusaders lost, 52-28, against the University of Dayton. Keel completed 20-34 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns, all of which went to Willike. Willike had 199 receiving yards. On the defensive side, Eberhardt had 17 tackles.
Capital finished the regular season as the best overall defensive team in the conference, limiting opponents to just 13.9 points per game and 252.8 yards per game. Eberhardt led Capital with 142 tackles. Szanto intercepted seven passes, which tied a school record at the time. Do-it-all defensive end Todd Smith finished the season with 50 tackles, 7.5 sacks and nine pass break-ups. As a team, the Crusaders intercepted 26 passes and recorded 37.5 sacks and had the best pass defense in the conference. Only the 2002 team intercepted more passes than the '87 Crusaders (27).
Not to be outdone, several offensive players put up astounding numbers, headlined by Willike. The split end finished his season with 78 catches for 1,331 yards and found the end zone nine times. Willike's 1,331 receiving yards is still the most in a single season in school history by more than 200 yards. Dunkle led Capital in rushing yards with 507 and added another 110 yards receiving with four rushing scores. Keel threw for 1,679 yards and 10 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Keel added 186 yards and three scores on the ground and his 1,865 yards of total offense are the 12th most in a single season. The 1987 team still holds the program record for most rushing attempts in a season with 583.
Members of the 1987 football team will be honored on the field during Capital's homecoming game on Sept. 30 against rival Otterbein with a pregame introduction. Team members will also be present during the pregame coin toss and a reunion will take place on the patio outside Moe Lounge.