Field covered, yes, but also bitterly cold. Saturday’s forecasted high in the Twin Cities is zero degrees.
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Because we’re down to just four games, Pat, Keith and Ryan are doing more than just predicting the winners and the scores – they’re also offering a deeper look at their thought processes and why they’re making the picks they’re making.
Take a peek at the picks and the write-ups below, and then please take a moment and leave your own score predictions in the comments below. Or you can reach out to us on Twitter at @d3football.com, @D3Keith or @NewsTipps.
Ryan’s take: Mount Union 33, Wesley 20. Even in Wesley’s strongest years, Mount has bested the Wolverines on the football field. I was, admittedly, shaky on the caliber of this Wesley team going into the postseason, and while I’ve also had some questions about the Purple Raiders, they haven’t been as significant as those about Wesley. To keep it close, the Wolverines are going to have to do something they haven’t really done yet in the playoffs: find success with BOTH the run game and the passing game. A team can’t be one-dimensional taking the field against the Purple Raiders, which ratchets up the pressure on quarterback Joe Callahan and the running backs. They’ll be facing Mount Union’s defense, which is younger than normal but clearly potent and eager to replicate past success.
Keith’s take: Mount Union 35, Wesley 21. In a departure from the regular season, I’ll be the concise one. Neither of these teams would beat the great Purple Raider or Wolverine teams that clashed previously, but that’s irrelevant on Saturday. Wesley’s got the intangibles and should be able to play loose, but QB Kevin Burke has a O-line that should keep him mostly clean against the Wolverines relentless rush. Meantime, DL Tom Lally was a problem for Wittenberg and could be for Wesley as well.
Pat’s take: Mount Union 45, Wesley 21. Just last week, it seems, Mount Union is beginning to come into its own. Wesley has been up and down … or perhaps really far up and just plain up, this year, but I don’t get the impression they are peaking at the right time, while Mount Union is. Jamar Baynard won’t have nearly the amount of room to run this week as he did against Ithaca and the young Wesley offensive line will struggle. The way Wesley has used Jeremiah Howe the past couple of weeks gives some reason for optimism that Wesley could put a few points on the board, at least early, but Mount Union is too versatile on offense now to be slowed.
Ryan’s take: North Central 45, Bethel 14. These two teams have combined for 219 points in the first two rounds, meaning they have averaged nearly 55 points a game. They have been scoring machines, and they were able to put up the numbers against some good competition. This should be the year that the Cardinals break into the national semifinals, something they’ve been predicted to do in recent years before falling just short. And I would have made that pick no matter the status of Bethel’s quarterback (though my score prediction would have changed).
Keith’s take: North Central 34, Bethel 28. For me, this is a departure from the final ballot I cast for the top 25 and the Surprises and Disappointments column. The quarterback issue for Bethel is one thing, but I also think NCC’s offensive run-pass balance and tempo will make it tough to keep off the scoreboard. I’ve fallen into the Cardinals-are-going-to-the-semifinals trap before, but this time they seem plenty tested along the way. I expect this to rival Linfield-UWW as the game of the day.
Pat’s take: North Central 27, Bethel 20. North Central is going to push the tempo on Bethel. I expect Bethel will be able to handle it well enough, however, and I expected the conditions to slow things down, especially the run game. That won’t keep North Central off the board, though. Now, on the opposite side, I have some confidence in Tom Keefe running the offense if Erik Peterson can’t go. I don’t know that that will be enough to get the job done, and if everyone can run their routes and catch passes in the zero-degree temperatures expected Saturday in the Twin Cities. Both teams are going to leave some point on the field (including a PAT in my score projection). I did not project any runbacks of blocked PATs, however, regardless of how many points they count for this week.
Ryan’s take: Linfield 21, UW-Whitewater 13. I imagine that some people’s confidence in Linfield was shaken after trailing as much as 21-3 in the second quarter against Hampden-Sydney last week. But a strange thing came over me. As close as I had been over the years to the H-SC program and as happy as I am to see the Tigers having postseason success, the first thought that came over me was: “That lead isn’t big enough to protect.” We’ve seen this year how Linfield can pour it on after the break -– like against Pacific or Pacific Lutheran in the regular season. When it’s needed, it happens. And that’s my takeaway from Linfield, a team that finds a way to make its own success. Their opponent, UW-Whitewater, is a team that has impressed me –- and won me over in many ways. I think this will be a game dominated by defenses (Linfield had six defenders that were first-team All-NWC and 11 total on the All-Conference team; Whitewater had five first-teamers and 10 total). The team that is able to find some offense or have a breakout play or two will win this matchup.
Keith’s take: Linfield 17, UW-Whitewater 14. I struggled with this one. Linfield was loaded to start the year, but at some point injuries might catch up with them. Both teams have had half-game lapses in the playoffs but have been otherwise outstanding. It’s expected to be between 12 and 18 degrees in Whitewater on Saturday, and The Perk is one of the true home-field advantages in D-III. Still, I think Linfield is due to catch a break in a huge game. QB Matt Behrendt has a 32-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio, and the Warhawks have only six lost fumbles all year, but Linfield has 20 interceptions and 32 takeaways in 11 games. If they stay on average, three turnovers a game, they can squeak out a road win in the best game of the playoffs.
Pat’s take: Linfield 17, UW-Whitewater 15. I have some concerns about UW-Whitewater putting enough points on the board. Heck, I have some concerns about Linfield doing so. I’m torn between wondering if the Whitewater defense can hold Linfield to fewer points than Hampden-Sydney did and wondering if Josh Yoder got the interceptions out of his system. This is the big toss-up of the field, and I’m sticking with the pick I made at the beginning of the playoffs.
Ryan’s take: Mary Hardin-Baylor 31, St. John Fisher 13. All season, Fisher has been able to beat good and great teams that it’s encountered. But UMHB is different; it’s elite. Defensively intimidating; offensively unslowable. The Louisiana College game aside, the Crusaders have destroyed their opposition this fall. And they’ve held both playoff opponents to single digits on the scoreboard. Fisher has had a great run, beating a Top 10 team and surprising me and countless others with that performance. The team is a testament to the value of bringing two-loss teams into the Pool C fold, and that commands respect. But this will be Mary Hardin-Baylor’s game.
Keith’s take: Mary Hardin-Baylor 40, St. John Fisher 10. There comes a point in every great D-III season where grit will only get you so far. The Cardinals have reached that point, and their opponent is one regarded by some as the best team in the tournament. Wind and freezing rain is expected in Belton, but instead of favoring the team from upstate New York, it helps UMHB. Behind QB Tyler Fenti, SJFC has thrown the ball well. That might be their best option, even in bad weather, as the Cru (63 y/g, four rush TDs allowed all season) is built to stop the run. Six defenders have double-digit tackles for losses, and and Fisher only averages 3.6 yards per carry this season — 4.4 by top back Cody Miller — anyway. Meantime, Cru RB Elijah Hudson, who has missed three games this season, appeared at full strength last week, with 23 carries for 136 yards against Rowan.
Pat’s take: Mary Hardin-Baylor 38, St. John Fisher 14. This is where the road ends. Again, it’s been a good run for St. John Fisher, but this is likely the end of the line. One thing that I worry about for UMHB, though, is that I feel like a good part of the Cru’s home success this year has been part of the momentum from the home crowd, and 2,500 fans are not as big a boost as, say, 9,300 or even 5,000. Playoff crowds are just smaller — they always are. But that’s not going to have an impact this week, and I don’t think UMHB will have to leave the Cruthedral until the Stagg Bowl, should they advance that far.