Triple Take: Regions’ winners to emerge

Mount Union
Mount Union’s defense has not been a problem this season.
Mount Union athletics photo

Is your heart still pounding after the comeback-laden Round 2? The field shrank to just eight teams, and we’re a mere 14 days from the final matchup in Salem.

Here in the regional finals, two Empire 8 teams are still alive, and both must travel to the upper Midwest for their Saturday matchups. Elsewhere, Wesley and Mary Hardin-Baylor are meeting in the postseason for the sixth time in seven years, with the Wolverines holding the 3-2 edge. The day’s fourth game, between Mount Union and Wabash, comes nine years after these teams last met, which was also the last time the Little Giants made it this deep in the playoffs.

Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps bring you more than just score predictions this week; we also give you a breakdown of each game and what we think the key factors will be.

If you’re feeling prescient, leave your final score guesses below. There’ll be a live blog running here on The Daily Dose during Saturday’s games, and all tweets with hashtag #d3fb are included.

For more info on the postseason, including the brackets and our Road to Salem feature stories, check our playoffs home page.

UW-Whitewater Bracket
Ryan’s take: UW-Whitewater 40, Salisbury 21
The Warhawks give up barely 70 yards a game on the ground; Salisbury gains on average more than 360. It’s likely Saturday’s result will meet somewhere in between. The Gulls have put up wads of points all season on teams that aren’t familiar with its triple-option offense, which has the dynamic trio of superback Randal Smedley, slot Ross Flanigan and quarterback Dan Griffin at its disposal. Only once in the past nine weeks has Salisbury posted fewer than 41 points. But no matter how many points the Gulls conspire to put up on the defending national champions, it’s improbable that they have answers for Levell Coppage, Matt Blanchard or Tyler Huber on the UW-W offense. The skill there is considerable. The players complement one another, and the push off the front line will have Salisbury remembering back to their game against Wesley.
Keith’s take: UW-Whitewater 28, Salisbury 24
In each of the six previous Warhawks playoff runs, there’s been a quarterfinal or semifinal game decided by three to 10 points. This is that game this year. Salisbury will strike early, as there’s no way to simulate an offense that lines its backs up within two yards of the line of scrimmage, and hits holes with remarkable quickness. Even if UW-Whitewater is stronger up front and blows plays up, some seams will develop. By halftime, though, the Warhawks should have a feel for what they’re dealing with, and that’s when Salisbury — the nation’s No. 1 team in passing efficiency, not just scoring offense — has to show some diversity in its attack. When they lull the Warhawks to sleep with the option and then fake it, QB Dan Griffin needs to hit the open streaking receiver. Ball security is also big; The Seagulls have two fumbles in 100 playoff rushes. Defensively, that second half is when Levell Coppage and his offensive line begins to wear down the opposing defense. Thirty carries and a second-half rally from down 24-14 wouldn’t surprise me. UW-Whitewater has earned the respect, and playing at Perkins Stadium, I have to pick them. But Warhawks fans shouldn’t view Salisbury as another Eastern team they can push around. It’s more like a team built in its ‘pound the rock’ mold, and one that won’t be overwhelmed by the continuous thump of run play after run play.
Pat’s take: UW-Whitewater 31, Salisbury 17
I think we have a speed kills situation here. It’s a big week for Salisbury, the most capable passing triple-option offense to make the postseason in the expanded playoff era, and I like them to stay competitive in the usual way. They can maintain possession, shorten the game, all the things necessary to keep the score close. The Sea Gulls’ defense needs to come up big against the Warhawks’ run game to make it competitive. They may be able to break a couple scores but UW-Whitewater will adjust.

Delaware Valley Bracket
Ryan’s take: St. Thomas 31, St. John Fisher 14
I’m not sure that St. John Fisher can handle the kind of run game that St. Thomas brings to the table. The Cardinals have been adept at keeping passing attacks out of the end zone and winning those games, but the only two times this season that opponents have rushed for more than 200 yards, Fisher limped away with losses. The Tommies get a lot of paydirt out of the 5-foot-9 Colin Tobin at running back, but the Dakota Tracy-to-Fritz Waldvogel tandem means that the passing game is in play — always. Fisher has had a great run and, like the 8-2 Wheaton team of 2008, proved that two-loss Pool C teams absolutely deserve consideration for the postseason. The ride, however, ends here.
Keith’s take: St. Thomas 25, St. John Fisher 22
I like the Cardinals’ chances a lot if Ryan Kramer starts. The Tommies’ defensive m.o. is smother the run (No. 1 nationally this season at less than 47 yards per game, in a no-slouch conference), and Kramer — a converted running back who wears No. 21 — gives Fisher a diverse playbook. Options, screens and draws are all in play when Kramer is in. The Tommies have leaned on Colin Tobin in the playoffs, and Fritz Waldvogel being a threat to go the distance at any time is the perfect complement to bruising running. If Ahmed Hassanien is the St. John Fisher quarterback, that plays into St. Thomas’s sack-happy pass rush. UST outrushed its two playoff opponents, 354-14 and 391-4, so SJF needs its run game to be a factor to keep the game from getting out of hand. Otherwise, all the reasons you’d normally knock a team — playing in the cold, traveling several states away, not having faced high-caliber opponents — aren’t things that concern me about St. John Fisher.
Pat’s take: St. Thomas 24, St. John Fisher 10
St. John Fisher took down two teams that the AFCA poll thought more highly of than our poll did, in Johns Hopkins and Delaware Valley. That type of ranking differential is usually an indication of a weaker schedule — our voters are more likely to keep a team with a good loss ahead of an unbeaten team. I mention all this in order to set up the point that St. Thomas is no such team. They’ve been to the playoffs each of the past three years and they are much healthier than at this point in 2010. Like last year, the Tommies have a strong run game and are primarily dependent on one receiver, but if Fritz Waldvogel goes down, as he did early in last year’s quarterfinal, at least the Tommies are in slightly better position. Defensively, St. Thomas is firing on all cylinders but will be facing a better challenge than either of the previous two weeks in the playoffs. The reason St. John Fisher doesn’t score more than the 10 points Monmouth scored last week is because I don’t think St. Thomas will put the ball on the turf three times and throw an easy pick. I’ve been pushing St. John Fisher in the first two rounds but can’t for the third. Every good run stops eventually.

Mary Hardin-Baylor Bracket
Ryan’s take: Wesley 38, Mary Hardin-Baylor 34
These two teams have more history together than any of the other pairings on Saturday, and despite that (or perhaps because of it), this matchup is the most difficult to predict. I like Wesley quarterback Shane McSweeny, the coach’s dream combination of potent passing and skilled running. I like his array of receiving targets — and the headaches they’ll provide to the UMHB secondary. I like the Wolverines’ turnover ratio, the red-zone offense, Sean Hopkins’ punt return ability. What I don’t like are penalties and an injured All-America defensive lineman in Chris Mayes. UMHB will make teams pay for their weaknesses, but the fact remains that the Crusaders aren’t as good against the pass as they are against the run. UMHB has seen good passing attacks, but Wesley has the edge in this one.
Keith’s take: Mary Hardin-Baylor 42, Wesley 35
Let’s get this standard analysis out of the way now. If the Wesley that scored 42 unanswered against No. 5 Linfield last week shows up from the opening kick this week, then UMHB has issues. But the Wolverines can’t afford to be the poor tackling, penalty-prone, rely-too-much-on-Shane-McSweeny team that it has been at times the past two weeks. The Wolverines will miss Chris Mayes, but less so than they would have against a pass-heavy team. Defensive tackle Paul Gilstrop and linebackers Jeff Morgan and Mike Asiedu have to excel in run defense. We can’t expect Wesley to hold UMHB under 100 rushing yards like Hobart (80) and Linfield (88); Salisbury (226 but only 75 passing yards) is a more apt comparison. Cru QB LiDarral Bailey hasn’t had to attempt more than 17 passes since mid-October. Darius Wilson hasn’t put up big numbers in the early rounds, but he’s lost one fumble in 224 carries this season. Ball security was an issue in the 19-9 loss in Dover last season, as was having to play from behind. UMHB is better when they build an early lead, but if they do it on Saturday, they’ll have to keep building, because the Wolverines have proven they can score in a hurry, and they’re never out of a game.
Pat’s take: Wesley 42, Mary Hardin-Baylor 37
Wesley brought back its entire linebacking corps this year, lost its entire secondary, and those are things which benefit the Wolverines against an option team such as Mary Hardin-Baylor. Chris Mayes being out with his ACL injury makes it a little more difficult for Wesley to hold the Cru down, however. UMHB’s struggles on offense early in the season could easily be explained away by the Cru’s flirtation with the pistol, getting them away from what they do best. And UMHB has held McMurry, a prolific offense, more or less in check twice. Shane McSweeny will be a different challenge, of course, than McMurry offered at quarterback, but not altogether different than East Texas Baptist’s Sed Harris provided. Harris went 17-for-29 for 117 yards while also rushing for 290 yards on 30 carries in an Oct. 22 loss to UMHB. Wesley is better defensively, however, even with Mayes out.

Mount Union Bracket
Ryan’s take: Mount Union 28, Wabash 20
After Wabash’s historic win last week against North Central, the Little Giants have made this discussion all the more interesting. But this chapter will be a challenging one to get through. The Purple Raiders have stumbled from time to time over the season, but true to form, they haven’t fallen. The Collins-Claycomb-Denton receiving squad is as formidable as any in Division III, helping to make UMU a consensus Top 2 team since the preseason. To stay in this one, Wabash’s answer will have to be a physical corps of defensive backs — an element the team has. It also has a run defense that not only hits hard but is quick to flocking to the ball. Offensively, the Little Giants have their own receiving threats with Jonathan Horn and Wes Chamblee, each of whom have great hands and hovered around 150 yards in the North Central game. We all know what Mount Union is capable of. The Purple Raiders co-own Division III. No question. Wabash has heart — we saw that last week. That heart, along with some big plays and a stingy defense, will make this game a good one.
Keith’s take: Mount Union 24, Wabash 12
I’ve got to respect the Little Giants after last week’s comeback against a North Central team that was probably better than most teams bounced in the second round. But like Wesley, they can’t fall behind again this week. Mount Union might not have a Cecil Shorts or a Nate Kmic this season, but they’ve got a Nick Driskill and a Charles Dieseul. When Centre scored 10 on the Purple Raiders last week, they became only the third team this season to reach that mark. Mount Union has had to scuffle for offense at times this year, and Wabash is good enough defensively to make it happen again, especially if defensive backs Austin Hodges and Kyle Najar play well. The Purple Raiders got wide receiver Jasper Collins back last week after four missed games, but lost top RB Jeremy Murray after five carries. Injuries are more of a factor in this semifinal than the others — we don’t know which Wabash QB will start either. This to me sets up to be a game that appears ugly to the untrained eye, but beautiful to the fans of hard tackling, solid blocking and powerful running. Won’t be fancy, as both teams try to take care of the ball, put the other in bad field position and let its dominant defense dominate.
Pat’s take: Mount Union 28, Wabash 13
I can see Wabash keeping Mount Union at least somewhat in check offensively. I struggle to see Wabash taking advantage, however, at least with its offensive unit on the field. Wes Chamblee is going to have to do a lot of work in the return game to keep Wabash in this game. Mount Union knows how to keep its foot on the gas offensively. Whether the offense has enough horsepower is another question, but at least the Purple Raiders won’t call off the dogs too soon and leave the door open for a comeback.