Will Mount Union run away and hide on Saturday? Perhaps not.
Photo by Dan Poel for d3photography.com
Remember the last times these two groupings of teams lined up against one another? Fans of the losing teams would probably rather forget those lopsided outings.
But that was then — long enough ago that it doesn’t matter how those matchups played out. At best, a handful of seniors on Mount Union’s and Bethel’s teams were on the 52-man roster for (and actually played in) the semifinal game from 2007. And then there’s UW-Whitewater and Wesley, which haven’t met in the postseason since 2006.
This is a whole new era for each of the four teams on the field.
So perhaps there will be some new predictions from Pat, Keith and Ryan. Or maybe not. You’ll have to keep reading to find out.
Bethel at Mount Union
Ryan: Mount Union 38, Bethel 14
I can hardly remember the last time a one-dimensional offense fared well against the Purple Raiders. Ironically, maybe it was back in 2004 in the Mount Union loss against Mary Hardin-Baylor. But even then, UMHB needed to have enough skill and composure to complete a long pass in the waning seconds for the win. Can Bethel successfully pass if the going gets tough? The Royals showed they could in an impressive Round 1 against Wartburg. Muster up that kind of outing, and Bethel will have a shot on Saturday. If Bethel puts too much faith in the ground game, Mount Union will be celebrating its 14th consecutive victory.
Keith: Mount Union 14, Bethel 0
I don’t think I’ve ever predicted a shutout before, at least not this deep into the playoffs. And maybe 21-7 is more like it. Or maybe it spirals out of control and my prediction is way wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m calling a super-low-scoring semifinal because as much as we like to obsess over offensive stars, the back end of the playoffs rewards the team that gets dirtiest and is willing to do the simple things well, like finish blocks and wrap up tackles. Both the Purple Raiders and Royals excel on defense. If Bethel is smart enough to use more than one player to try to limit Cecil Shorts III (59 catches, 16 TD), Mount Union will be able to go to tight end Kyle Miller (54 catches, 5 TD) and wide receiver Jasper Collins (53 catches, 0 TD) for key conversions. Bethel, on the other hand, might end up a one-dimensional running team against a 4-2-5 defense that excels at pursuing to the ball and finishing when they get there. The Royals told our Brian Hunsicker that they don’t send fat guys after the quarterback; Their well-toned rushers better make it to Neal Seaman, who’s hardly needed his uniform washed after some games. Otherwise I think both defenses get their licks in early, and the Purple Raiders emerge with just enough offense to get to Salem.
Pat: Mount Union 24, Bethel 8
Struggling to figure out how Bethel will score, as I suspect my compatriots were. One-dimensional offenses don’t tend to fare too well against Mount Union. In the first meeting with St. Thomas, when Bethel was even more one-dimensional, it wasn’t even Logan Flannery who scored, but Kevin Lindh breaking one open for 52 yards. Mount Union isn’t necessarily the immovable object on defense that the playoffs have portrayed the Purple Raiders as, but the Royals will need to get or create a couple of breaks to put more points on the board. Defensively I see them slowing the Purple Raiders down but not necessarily enough to make more than a dent, although Brendan Flaherty’s reputation as a cover corner will be put to the test against one Cecil Shorts III.
UW-Whitewater at Wesley
Ryan: Wesley 31, UW-Whitewater 27
To come out gun-slinging and not turn the ball over are the best nuggets of advice I can give to Wesley. Wolverines quarterback Justin Sottilare has been wicked-crisp during the postseason: going 63-for-91 (that’s almost 70 percent) with nine touchdowns in that time. And that comes against some solid defenses. The cherry on top might be that Sottilare has also had zero picks in the past three weeks. That’s the playmaker front; Wesley may also be able to harness a bit of an edge in the trenches. The size of the Wolverines’ offensive and defensive lines seems to be better matched than that of their Warhawk counterparts, though it won’t be until we see these teams collide as to whether it’s clear if any speed has been sacrificed in the size differential. To be sure, UW-Whitewater is a top-notch team that could certainly win in Salem for the second year in a row (we’ve all been talking about that for months), but I don’t think of this prediction as going out on a limb — at least not when a team like Wesley also brings so much to the table.
Keith: UW-Whitewater 21, Wesley 16
I’ve been stuck on the same thought since I realized this matchup was taking place: Is this Wesley team significantly different from the the previous three who reached the semifinals and lost, two by blowout at UW-Whitewater? Fans around the country who are tired of seeing Purple in Salem would love to hear a yes, but I think it’s a no. If these Wolverines are better than the ones I picked to win at Mount Union in this round last year, it’s something intangible that I haven’t picked up on. If Wesley wins this Saturday, I don’t think home field is a big factor. It’s Mike Drass and staff vs. Lance Leipold and staff this time, which is a difference from the ’05 and ’06 meetings, when Bob Berezowitz coached the Warhawks. But at this point in the playoffs, every year it comes down to virtually the same thing: What you’ve got up front. And while I have it on good authority that this is Wesley’s most cohesive offensive line, if not it’s most physically talented of the era of Wolverines dominance, I’ve seen both teams this year with my own eyes. UW-Whitewater still does two things most teams can’t: Generate a pass rush using only their defensive line, and bear down and grind out tough rushing yards in the fourth quarter behind their offensive line. Having the nation’s best running back in Levell Coppage doesn’t hurt either. This might be Wesley’s best defense ever, but unless they can win in the trenches more often than not, it’s the same end result.
UW-Whitewater 21, Wesley 16
I’ve resisted making Blanchard plays/Blanchard doesn’t play predictions so far and I’m going to continue to do so even though I feel there is a difference of about a touchdown or so. Having seen UW-Whitewater’s MO on paper the previous two weeks and in person last week, it’s a game plan that should have just as reasonable a chance of succeeding as it did against North Central. Play it fairly close to the vest on offense, wear the other team down, right? Except Wesley isn’t supposed to be as easy to wear down. Here’s where I struggle with Wesley, however — Ellis Krout injured his knee last week against Mary Hardin-Baylor and if he’s not able to go 100 percent, that cuts into one place Wesley has a distinct advantage, its passing game against the UW-Whitewater secondary. Whitewater will have to contain Chris Mayes early after his four sacks in the first half against Mary Hardin-Baylor, as Lee Brekke isn’t as experienced at facing the rush at the college level as LiDarral Bailey was. And this is likely to be an extreme rush. With that in mind I see another low-scoring game, but I still think UWW has enough of the extras aside from the starting 22 to push the balance in its favor — more reliable kicking game, better discipline, and other things that can’t be measured by stats or a roster.