There isn’t a whole lot of intro needed here. We have four phenomenal teams left from a crop of 239. Two will punch tickets to Salem on Saturday, one in sunny Belton, Texas, the other in chilly Alliance, Ohio. And believe it or not, we have unanimity among the trio who’s been forecasting each playoff weekend for you: columnist Ryan Tipps, columnist/managing editor Keith McMillan and publisher Pat Coleman.
After the guys have at it, feel free to add your own picks below. Those brave enough win the opportunity to gloat later.
Wisconsin-Whitewater (12-1) at Mary Hardin-Baylor (12-1)
Ryan’s take: The phrase â€œbruised and batteredâ€ means something different to Mary Hardin-Baylor than it does to other teams. Several times this year, it has seemed the Crusaders were poised to stumble under excessive injuries. Yet instead of tip-toeing through the troubles, they ran past them at full speed, helped by the half-dozen guys who have been able to pick up an average of 5 yards or more per carry. Then again, UW-Whitewater, no slouches on offense, will also likely be the stingiest defense UMHB has lined up against this year. A difference of only 10 yards per game, statistically, separates these two offenses. Both teams have been here before — in terms of time, place and stakes. What could hinder Whitewater is an inability to stay at full throttle for the full 60 minutes, allowing UMHB to pull away after the break.
Mary Hardin-Baylor 38, UW-Whitewater 24
Keith’s take: Usually I’m the long-winded, overly analytical one, but I’ll keep my reasoning simple in this toss-up. I’m making the stretch from picking UMHB to be upset in the first round to picking them to get to Salem, basically based on how they’ve played the past two weeks against Wesley and W&J. They’ve been able to mix the pass in with the always-potent running game, and generate problems on defense. They demolished the Presidents, 63-7, and should be as confident as they have been all season; UW-Whitewater had to battle to get past Wartburg. Playing well, playing at home and playing to keep dreams of the school’s first championship alive, I go:
Mary Hardin-Baylor 28, UW-Whitewater 21
Pat’s take: My concern is that another potent running offense will cause the Warhawks to break rather than just bend. If UMHB is in field goal range it won’t hesitate to take the points, which may have been Willamette’s downfall two weeks ago. The Crusader defense will do a better job early in the game than Willamette did against UWW, plus, I’m still worried about quarterback Jeff Donovan, who is 12-for-29 passing since getting injured at halftime of the second-round game.
Mary Hardin-Baylor 31, UW-Whitewater 20
Wheaton (11-2) at Mount Union (13-0)
Ryan’s take: The Thunder struck hard against the trio of Indiana playoff teams, but Ohio will undoubtedly be a different beast for them. Wheaton is best through the middle of a game: The second and third quarters are their prime times for putting up points and keeping pressure on teams, both of which are critical if the men want any chance of beating the Mount Union machine. For the Thunder, slowing Nate Kmic and getting pressure on Greg Micheli are possible. But is shutting down the receiving corps? That will be the biggest key to Wheaton’s chances in Alliance, and I’m not entirely convinced the team will deliver. Wheaton gives up, on average, 228 yards per game against the pass, but to its credit the team has held its previous two (pass-heavy) playoff opponents to fewer than their averages. At this point in the season, Wheaton is accelerating down the stretch toward perfection — and perfection is exactly what will be needed from them Saturday.
Mount Union 41, Wheaton 17
Keith’s take: I love the run Wheaton is on, I love that they’ve been able to play great defense when needed and outscore teams when that’s been the recipe. Pete Ittersagen is a defensive stud, the offense is mixing the run and the pass well, and the Thunder is playing inspired. That said, we’ve seen hardly the chink in the armor necessary for me to believe Mount Union is going down on Saturday. There are flaws, but they remain few, and I don’t see the Purple Raiders playing a sloppy, turnover-plagued game with Greg Micheli at the controls. It might get dicey at times, it might not be easy, but it will lead to another Purple Saturday in Salem.
Mount Union 35, Wheaton 17
Pat’s take: I just don’t see Wheaton having the firepower to stay with Mount Union, not if Rocky Gingg can’t go at running back. Even if Pete Ittersagen keeps Cecil Shorts in check, it’s a tough task for Wheaton to keep the Purple Raiders’ other offensive pieces contained if the offense doesn’t help by keeping them off the field. In the end, this game looks a lot like last week’s Mount Union game, close for a while with the Purple Raiders pulling away. And I think Nate Kmic gets the all-time NCAA rushing record in the process.
Mount Union 45, Wheaton 14