North Central will need to generate some offense in order to beat UW-Whitewater, we think
In the regional finals, the field has been whittled down to just eight. As in years past, Pat, Keith and Ryan now take you a little deeper into their rationale for the winners and scores that are picked.
Aside from Mount Union and Alfred, the others are not unfamiliar foes: there are the MIAC conference-mates, the regular South Region powers and Midwest teams again battling it out in the postseason. We’ve seen a version of each of these three games at least once since 2007.
Does that make the comparisons any easier? Perhaps. Compiled without consulting with each other, we give you our thoughts. Don’t hesitate to give us yours in the comments section.
Ryan: Wesley 31, Mary Hardin-Baylor 24
This might be my favorite rivalry-that-isn’t-officially-a-rivalry game in the country. Over the past five seasons, these two teams have met four times — with Wesley winning the first two meetings and UMHB the next two — and the outcome is usually an exciting one. This year, it’s not the things that will happen that are significant, it’s be the ones that won’t happen: UMHB won’t be anywhere close to its average of nearly 500 yards of offense a game; Wesley’s two-headed rushing attack won’t be called upon much; and there won’t be a shortage of turnovers. The team with the better defense will be the factor on Saturday. In that case, the nod goes to the corps led by Chris Mayes, Mike Asiedu and Aaron Benson.
Pat: Wesley 35, Mary Hardin-Baylor 30
The game may well be a welcome relief for the Wesley players after the events of the week, in which four of their teammates, all from the playoff roster, were arrested and charged in connection with burglaries of dorm rooms over Thanksgiving break. Wesley is facing a souped-up version of Salisbury, with the ability to pass the ball. But I’m still concerned about the Mary Hardin-Baylor defense. I do recognize that they performed better down the stretch and have so far in the postseason, but Howard Payne, Sul Ross State and Texas Lutheran were the bottom three teams in total offense in the ASC. Wesley will be a different type of team.
Keith: Wesley 20, Mary Hardin-Baylor 15
I think all four games Saturday turn on defense. No surprises between the Wolverines and Cru, who won’t have any of the jitters a team making its first trip to Dover might. Wesley is talented enough in the secondary to make UMHB one-dimensional, and fast enough to play its assignments when the Cru runs option. The Wolverines will miss the four players kicked off the team after their arrests for burglary (hat tip to WDEL’s Sean Greene) — but they were mostly offensive contributors, including WR DeAndre Fowlkes. Deep enough to persevere through 11 injuries already, what’s four more players to replace? UMHB is well-tested from the ASC schedule and seems to have hit another gear late in the season (378-32 the past five games). The line will open up some holes against the Wolverines’ oft-talked-about defensive line, but they’ll close up quickly because Wesley can match UMHB’s team speed. The Cru is penalized and turns it over more than is good for an elite team, and that could be their undoing. This will be the first real close game in the five-game series.
Ryan: Mount Union 45, Alfred 7
There’s no doubt that Alfred has impressed me this postseason, becoming that sleeper team for which the dream could end at any moment. The Saxons have offensive balance and have proven that they can win the big game if needed (Fisher and Cortland). But will they again? Yes … in 2011.
Pat: Mount Union 52, Alfred 9
I don’t foresee this game being much different than the rest of the bracket so far against Mount Union. In score, perhaps, but not in the final outcome.
Keith: Mount Union 31, Alfred 10
Before dismissing Alfred offhand, I considered this: The Saxons put up 34 on a defense last week that let one regular-season opponent hit 20; Seven Cortland State opponents were kept in single digits. So why can’t Alfred surprise again? For starters, Mount Union gave up 28 in its opener and has allowed 54 since. Two playoff opponents together have mustered one field goal. The Purple Raiders might be sophomore-laden, but reports of the Machine’s vulnerability are premature. I watched a Mount Union game on DVR and realized I might have been looking at the Purple Raiders backwards. Aside from Cecil Shorts III and Lambert Budzinski, Mount Union lacks star power of previous iterations. But are there any weaknesses? I didn’t see any, and neither will Alfred. QB Tom Secky will have to make quick reads against UMU’s unfamiliar 4-2-5, while his counterpart, Neal Seaman, will have plenty of time in the pocket to come through for key conversions. I don’t see an outlandish final, but I think Mount Union can do roughly what it did to Delaware Valley.
Ryan: St. Thomas 21, Bethel 17
These two teams were evenly matched six weeks ago when they first met, and they’re evenly matched still today. And they both have overcome some big hurdles in competition to get to the regional final. The only difference this time may be that there will be a few more points on the board by close of day Saturday.
Pat: St. Thomas 17, Bethel 15
Teams that love playing each other — at least, St. Thomas loves playing Bethel, preparing for Bethel, etc. Smashmouth football all the way. Big days, potentially, for Logan Flannery and Colin Tobin/Ben Wartman. And with the game on the biggest radio station in the state, there could be more listeners than fans making the short trip. Did Bethel catch lightning in a bottle last week with its surprising field goal or have the Royals found a little confidence for their struggling kicker? Filling the stadium is always harder when the weather gets cold and the students have to pay to get in, but this should get close.
Keith: St. Thomas 14, Bethel 7
Since Minnesota is Pat’s home turf, I’ve seen MIAC teams very little the past few years. I have the least to go on here, but what I do know led me to this: Most rematches bear little resemblance to a first meeting. But all Bethel and St. Thomas want to do is run it down the other’s throat (each averages at least 217 rushing yards per game) and play great defense (St. Thomas has given up 137 points in 12 games, Bethel 139). Good formula for winning in St. Paul in December. So I think this one looks just like the first, low-scoring and rugged. Bethel could crash the party and leave us with the same semifinal matchups as 2007 (Royals at Mount Union, while UW-W and UMHB meet again on the opposite side), but I put this one on St. Thomas’s defense playing just a hair better than Bethel’s.
Ryan: UW-Whitewater 38, North Central 17
The leadership and performance of backup Warhawks quarterback Lee Brekke has served the team well the first two weeks of the playoffs (seven passing touchdowns and nearly 100 points in all), helping to kick around the defenses of teams from my native Indiana. But Brekke isn’t quite Matt Blanchard, and if the latter is to be a factor heading toward the Stagg Bowl, he needs to get his feet wet again before Salem. The UWW offense will score — on the ground and through the air. I suspect North Central’s will as well, but the one-dimensional attack of last weekend won’t get the Cardinals far against the defending national champions. Spencer Stanek will need to throw, a lot.
Pat: UW-Whitewater 24, North Central 13
I don’t know if the weather keeps the score down or the defenses, but I expect this to be a lower scoring game. For North Central to have a shot, they’ll need to have a big day through the air, I think, which is the opposite of the direction they’ve taken the past few weeks. They still have receiving talent on the roster, Steve Hlavac for example, but need to get the ball in the air. UW-Whitewater could win regardless of Matt Blanchard’s status because it should be able to run the ball, even if nobody has against North Central all season.
Keith: UW-Whitewater 16, North Central 13
I gave some serious thought to picking the Cardinals, even though I’m on record saying the Warhawks are the team I think is going to win the tournament. It has nothing to do with home field either — as a player, I always felt there was just as much to like about being on the road as there was to dislike. I think it’ll be a 60-40 or 70-30 split crowd anyway. Points are going to be hard to come by Saturday; North Central is the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense (8.3/game) and has given up double digits twice — 13 and 14. Whitewater is tied with Bethel for sixth in scoring D (11.6/game), but gave up 31 to Trine last week. It might not have been so much weakness exposed as the Thunder being that good. North Central and UW-Whitewater match up physically, and I leaned Warhawks here because in a low-scoring tie game in the fourth, UW-W has the championship grit and the muscle along the line to grind out a game-winning drive. I’ll call an Eric Kindler field goal — he’s 9 of 10 since missing six straight in September — to decide an epic clash.