LiDarral Bailey is leading the most balanced UMHB offense in the program’s short history.
Photo by Andrew Zavoina, d3photography.com
Eight of the D3football.com top nine teams have made it to the regional finals, which is the maximum number that the NCAA brackets would have allowed. And of those eight still on the field, they are a combined 94-1 this season, with the only loss coming in September by No. 6 Wesley at the hands of No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor, a pair that is matched up again this weekend.
It’s sure to prove another exciting Saturday of football, so Triple Take is expanding a bit. 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. On game day, if you’re using Twitter, be sure to include the hashtag #d3fb in your posts so the whole of the Division III community can hear you.
No. 5 UW-Oshkosh at No. 3 Linfield
Ryan’s take: Linfield 48, UW-Oshkosh 38. It’s no secret that UW-Oshkosh’s biggest weapon is the man lining up under center. Nate Wara is an amazingly mobile quarterback who is among the best in the nation in pass efficiency. And if he’s playing up to his potential, he could be a serious threat for a Linfield team that has given up close to 300 yards or more against its tougher competition. We’ve talked before about how Linfield is the nation’s sack leader. The Wildcats will need a strong defensive line performance more than ever, to keep Wara off balance and constantly wondering what lurks just over his shoulder. And absolutely, definitely, positively the Titans can’t start slow out of the gate against this Linfield team. That’ll be a death blow. But more than that, I don’t see UW-O putting enough pressure on Mickey Inns and his receivers, and I would not be surprised to see Inns notch his fifth 300-plus-yard game of the season. After last week’s outing against North Central, Linfield’s momentum appears to be going strongest at the point in the season when it’s needed the most.
Keith’s take: UW-Oshkosh 34, Linfield 27. If I might just come totally clean here, my original pick was Linfield, 34-27. I’d just written a feature on the Wildcats and they’re tugging at my heartstrings, plus I’ve been wanting to see Linfield play Mount Union for years now. I think the winner of this game is going to Salem, and as much as I like the Wildcats at home, I switched my pick to the Titans for a couple of reasons (not that anyone looks at anything besides who we pick, right?). Both offenses are prolific, but Linfield’s is one-dimensional. The Wildcats rushed for 39 yards in the first round and 26 last week, and I’m not sure they can outscore the Titans like that. Linfield’s also been remarkably adept, or fortunate, at generating turnovers in these playoffs, but Nate Wara has thrown just four interceptions this season, although three have been during the playoffs. UW-Oshkosh has faced an offense like Linfield’s (though in fairness, not a quarterback like Mickey Inns), and held UW-Platteville to 13 points. So even though they’re susceptible to the pass (99th nationally this season), in big games they’ve held up well. Linfield, however, leads the nation in sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and may rattle Wara. Frankly, I’m sticking my neck out here — Linfield is the safe pick. This game is very much a toss-up, and the highlight of the quarterfinals — no disrespect to Cru-Wolverines IX.
Pat’s take: Linfield 31, UW-Oshkosh 30. We’ve got perhaps the best quarterback Linfield has faced this season in Nate Wara, and he’s a dual threat at that. Can Caleb Voss do for UW-O what Kyle Warner did for PLU two weeks ago (12 catches, 205 yards)? Probably not. But then again, Cole Myhra will make up for that a little bit with his ability to run the ball. Linfield might struggle to run the ball but they will be able to throw better than Bethel did against UW-Oshkosh, meaning they should still be able to score.
No. 7 Hobart at No. 4 St. Thomas
Ryan’s take: St. Thomas 21, Hobart 20. After last week, I became a little shakier on St. Thomas and grew a little more confident in Hobart. I do love a team that can run the ball and make it count. Both the Tommies and Statesmen can do that, and not surprisingly, when their defenses take the field, they both are highly skilled at stuffing their opponents’ ground game. That very well could make this a game of the trenches. But here’s where UST has the advantage: The Tommies have had success passing the ball if the situation called for it, and they have experience playing in the regional finals over the past couple of seasons. The mental endurance is there.
Keith’s take: Hobart 14, St. Thomas 13: “Oh snap, McMillan’s gone rogue. He’s feeling himself because he picked Widener last week when the other guys took Salisbury.” Actually, it’s simpler than that. Widener and Hobart might not win this week, but these aren’t your typical East patsies that run into power-conference teams and are brushed aside. Normally I’d take a MIAC champ over a Liberty League champ without a second thought. But athletically, these Statesmen should be able to hold their own. And they’re built in St. Thomas’s mold: Rugged on defense, dedicated to pounding out the rushing yards. And that might be the only place they have an edge. Stat comparisons are of limited use here because St. Thomas has won its 12 games against much better teams than Hobart’s 12, but both are stout against the run: The Tommies allow 75 yards per game, 7th nationally, and Hobart allows 88, 15th. Rushing yards will be hard to come by, but the Statesmen have the better backs in Steven Webb and Bobby Dougherty. The question is, can Hobart hang with St. Thomas along the line of scrimmage? I’m still of the opinion the Tommies were built to win it all last year, and might break through to Salem when this season’s offense, with freshman and sophomores in key spots, get a few years older. The Tommies looked vulnerable last week against Elmhurst, which makes this the East’s best opportunity to have a team break through to Salem in years. I’m sticking my neck out so much that I might have to make Wu-Tang my theme music this weekend, but it was time to make a stand. Although trends have developed over the years, teams aren’t automatically going to move on because of their name or their conference or their home region.
Pat’s take: St. Thomas 17, Hobart 16. Tempted to call this one of the great vaunted defensive battles that ends up being high scoring but I don’t have the guts to go that far against the grain. What I do believe is that St. Thomas will be facing the best defensive player it’s seen all season in Hobart’s Tyre Coleman and as the bracket has gotten smaller, the Tommies have scored fewer and fewer points. But St. Thomas has generally had a pretty good offensive line and they’ve been creative on offense to make things work even when their primary options have been taken away. In years past, the Tommies have really suffered when they’ve been banged up on offense but this year’s there’s a lot more depth and less drop-off between the starters and backups.
No. 6 Wesley at No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor
Ryan’s take: Mary Hardin-Baylor 35, Wesley 21. What hurts the Wolverine offense is that it is just too one dimensional, especially for this point in the postseason. Justin Sottilare is as good of a quarterback as you’ll find, but something has been missing from the Wesley team this season. And whatever that element is, it’s led the team to play games a lot tighter this season than they have in the past. Conversely, UMHB is peaking with senior skill players, notably a quarterback who can run and who throws waaaaay more touchdowns than interceptions. The Cru are stringing together something special this year.
Keith’s take: Mary Hardin-Baylor 31, Wesley 20. I’m a huge fan of the way Wesley scheduled this season, and how they’ve been playing of late, and I think their defense is underrated. The Wolverines are one of only three teams who kept UMHB under 45 points in a game this season, and they went toe-to-toe with the Cru in Delaware back in September. The story in Texas in December ends the same way though, as I just can’t think of any reason to pick against UMHB at this point. An outstanding Wesley defensive effort and a flurry of turnovers is about the only scenario I can see derailing the Cru. Even so, there’s the matter of Wesley matching UMHB offensively. Despite some big numbers lately, Wesley has been offensively modest in its games this season against top opponents. The teams know each other so well that you don’t really envision one side coaching the pants off the other. For all the talk about UMHB’s run game, QB LiDarral Bailey is the nation’s second most-efficient passer behind Mount Union’s Kevin Burke, and Bailey’s 26 TDs and three INTs compare with Burke (32/5), Wara (28/4) and Inns (29/6). He’s played so well we hardly even mention RB Darius Wilson anymore.
Pat’s take: Mary Hardin-Baylor 45, Wesley 27. Mary Hardin-Baylor is just firing on all cylinders offensively right now and I don’t see Wesley being able to shut that down enough to win. Will Wesley score some points? Sure. And Wesley will be able to throw a bit on UMHB. The big X factor in my mind is the fact that Wesley has had to battle through a lot of games this year and UMHB has not — so Wesley may be more prepared to play four full quarters.
No. 9 Widener at No. 1 Mount Union
Ryan’s take: Mount Union 45, Widener 17. Widener got the right bounce in a couple of games this year that helped propel them to an undefeated regular season and convincing wins through the first two weeks of the playoffs. But nothing has prepared them for what the Purple Raiders bring to the table. Statistically, Widener doesn’t have a Top 25 pass or rush defense. Mount Union will exploit that. Widener isn’t in the top half of Division III rushing offenses. Mount will exploit that, too. This isn’t an indictment on the Pride but rather a testament to the level that Mount plays at in the postseason. The Alliance-based machine packs too many weapons in Burke, Jasper Collins, Chris Denton, Antonio Tate, Charles Dieuseul and Nick Driskill, names that only scratch the surface of the team’s keys to success. Widener will get all that it can handle and then some.
Keith’s take: Mount Union 35, Widener 21: Let me say this up front: Widener deserves to be here. Having seen them play, they’re more than just a sacrificial lamb for the Purple Raiders. They will score some points and put some pressure on Burke. This is the best team Mount Union has played all season, and the 25-point margins of victory floating around on the message boards sell the Pride a bit short. Let me also say this: Mount Union’s dominance is so commonplace we sometimes take it for granted. This season, it’s come about with a smothering defense and the nation’s most efficient quarterback playing behind an offensive line that moves as one. The Purple Raiders are not perfect — they have been challenged, and have made some mistakes this season, but they’re resilient and recover quickly. And so when Widener — whose base offensive set last week seemed to be empty backfield, quads left — finds ways to move WR Anthony Davis around and get him open against what are sure to be Mount Union double-teams, likely involving CB Isaiah Scott or Ss Alex Nicholls or Driskill, don’t be surprised if they put up some points or are competitive in the game. QB Chris Haupt controls an offense that will line up in double-tight, I-backs one play, then empty the next. Haupt is a four-year starter who knows the ins and outs of his offense and leads with emotion. He’s thrown 18 interceptions this season, more than all but one QB in the nation’s top 100 passers, yet is still 13th in passing efficiency. Mount Union, though, will make Widener one-dimensional by stopping the run, and as good as the Pride defense was against Salisbury last week, handling Burke to Collins, Denton and Julius Moore requires more top-notch cornerbacks than most teams have. In the end, expecting Widener to do slightly better than Heidelberg did against Mount Union seems completely reasonable.
Pat’s take: Mount Union 52, Widener 14: I don’t see Widener being able to slow down the Mount Union offense, which Burke has been running at a high level all season. The Purple Raiders might not run well but they won’t have to this week, I don’t think. The Haupt-to-Davis connection should be good for a couple of scores but not enough on a consistent basis to beat a team such as Mount Union.