Triple Take, Week 4: The first Saturday filled with showdowns

This looks like a great weekend, from top to bottom and start to finish. No. 1 UW-Whitewater won a Thursday-night thriller against NAIA No. 1 Morningside, but the action should continue as St. Thomas and St. John’s threaten to set an unofficial Division III attendance mark, and get a visit from SportsCenter, while Wittenberg-Wabash and Wesley-North Central also mark clashes between top-25 teams.

There’s intrigue elsewhere, and the NESCAC finally joins the party as well. With more than 100 games this weekend and most of D-III’s 247 teams in action, we realize you can’t follow everything. Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I provide our seven-point primers on where to watch for road wins, great finishes and potential upsets.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 5 Wesley at No. 22 North Central. This is a non-conference clash involving two of the most successful programs of the past decade, and each would still be in the same place in its chase of its conference’s automatic playoff spot with a loss. Yet it’s a huge game. It’s the kind players gear up for because they know it’s top competition, and it’s the one they’ll remember years later. It will tell us on the outside a bit about the national picture. Wesley QB Joe Callahan (eight TDs, 0 INTs) is one of the nation’s best. From Jeff Thorne’s comments around the 5:20 mark in NCC’s Red Zone show, sounds like RB Austin Bruenig (who had a long TD run against UW-Platteville) gets first crack at replacing Oshayne Brown, but that several backs will get carries.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 12 St. Thomas at No. 8 St. John’s. There are other great games taking place, but we all know — as does ESPN — that the Tommie-Johnnie game is week’s big dog. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the pick from all three of us.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 1 UW-Whitewater at Morningside and No. 12 St. Thomas at No. 8 St. John’s. One of these games was played before Triple Take was published but both are worthy of separate recognition as the game of the week. For Whitewater, hey, no pressure, but all of Division III’s reputation was riding on your play on Thursday night.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Misericordia at Stevenson. The Cougars are in their fourth year since starting football, and after a 2-28 first three seasons, the magic is supposed to happen. Instead, 0-3 Misericordia is coming off 37-7 and 28-7 home losses. Stevenson is 3-0 and has had a morale-boosting win over one-time MAC power Lycoming. These are the kinds of games players take easily, and look clear past. They’re young adults and are human; who can blame them? But Misericordia won’t just lay down — they’ve given up only one first-quarter score the past two weeks. It might take some time before the Mustangs pull away in this one.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Trinity (Texas) at Pacific Lutheran. Last year, PLU rolled to the tune of 38-14 on the road, but I think we’re looking at very different teams from both the Lutes and the Tigers in 2015. Trinity seems better poised to pull this one out, but it’s not going to be by the same hefty margins of the past two weeks.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 10 John Carroll at Baldwin Wallace. Honestly, if this game is not surprisingly close, it will be the Blue Streaks’ first game this season that isn’t. I’m holding out for the possibility that John Carroll might approach last season’s performance and be ready to challenge for the conference title at the end of the season, but it’s fair to say they haven’t looked that way so far. Meanwhile, Baldwin Wallace bounced back from the debacle in its opener vs. Bluffton to beat Ohio Northern last week.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 10 John Carroll at Baldwin Wallace. It’s a rare week in that almost every top-25 team (save for Mount Union, Thomas More and Bethel) has a matchup it could lose, and yet it was tough to convince myself of one that fit here. Empire 8 members Utica and Alfred are off to good starts, but Cortland State and Ithaca have played such good competition, it’s hard to pick against them. Centre was a thought. So were Johns Hopkins and Rowan. But they’re all playing too well. John Carroll is the team where the jury is most out. Are they a team that could surpass the Purple Raiders? Or could they lose to a team that lost to Bluffton in Week 2? Consider this a challenge for the Blue Streaks to prove to national onlookers that what they’ve built was more than just lucking into a great quarterback the past few years. The six sacks vs. Heidelberg last week were a start.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 21 Centre, at Chicago. With Rhodes’ unexpected fall last week, Chicago is positioned to be the best challenger to unseat Centre at the top of the SAA — so there’s a whole lot riding on the outcome of this game. Chicago’s new quarterback, Burke Moser, came into the season with minimal collegiate experience but in two games has passed for more than 600 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He has a wealth of receiving targets and veteran defense to help keep him in prime field position to reach the end zone.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 5 Wesley, at No. 22 North Central. We don’t usually pick Top 25 matchups as upset picks but I think this is one where the teams are ranked far enough apart that Wesley is clearly favored, even on the road. I think North Central will bounce back, although I am taking a chance that running back Oshayne Brown will return for the Cardinals. I think there are still some unanswered questions about Wesley and for them to fly halfway across the country and go play a Top 25 team seems to me ripe for an upset.

Pick a team that scores an impressive road win

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: UW-River Falls at Southwestern. Since the Falcons nearly pulled off the upset of the century against UW-Whitewater back in Week 11 of last year, they’ve gone on to do, well, nothing. Opening with two losses and a trip to Texas isn’t necessarily a recipe to get right, but it willc happen this week. Southwestern is all over the board, following a 77-6 Week 1 loss with a 7-6 win against McMurry, and then a 46-37 loss to East Texas Baptist in which it attempted a two-point conversion to tie the game with 2:41 left. But if our conference rankings mean anything, a lower-tier WIAC team should still be able to go to Texas and beat a third-year SCAC program. We’ll be watching intently.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 1 UW-Whitewater, at Morningside. Against who? Morningside is the Iowa team that is currently No. 1 in the NAIA polls. While a Whitewater win against Morningside wouldn’t mean as much in terms of playoffs as a win would against a top Division III team, it’s still going to be a talker. And, best of all, this is a game that everyone in the D-II community (all 247 football-playing teams of us) could band together for in support of our defending national champions. (Note: I typed this item up on Tuesday, and we’ll know by the time Triple Take is published whether I’m right or wrong.)
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Carthage, at Lakeland. The Red Men are going to be hurting for road wins, possibly just wins in general, this season. They were already blown out by St. Norbert earlier this season. It’s a struggling program, but Carthage got better from Week 1 to Week 2 and with another strong performance, a win should be possible here in Week 4.

Pick a game that’s decided in the fourth quarter

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Framingham State and Western Connecticut State. Another week, another MASCAC pick. But these are the two teams most worth watching from the conference, and with the Rams visiting Danbury, we can expect a close finish. The Rams have a great statistical profile: Nine takeaways in three games, 94.6% in red-zone scoring and a time of possession average of more than 35 minutes. QB Matthew Silva is completing more than seven passes per game to both Marcus Grant and Tevin Jones. Western Conn. responds with QB Michael Nicol, who has rushed for 384 yards and five TDs and has passed for 84 and zero. Should be a fun one.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Alfred at No. 24 Ithaca. The Bombers showed last week against Hobart how wicked their defense could be. Now it’s time to prove that they’re not a fluke. Alfred, at 3-0 and a traditionally worthy E8 opponent, is certainly not getting overlooked. This is a stiff September test for both of these squads, and I expect it to be close and still quite a fight in the final period.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Minnesota-Morris at Iowa Wesleyan. In Kickoff, I identified this as the game in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference with pride on the line. Now, Morris has already won a game, vs. Greenville at that, so Morris has already started to defend its pride this season. IWC broke into double digits last season after scoring nine and six points in their first two games. These two teams with really small rosters will be on somewhat more equal footing than they often have been.

The NESCAC makes its fashionably late entrance this weekend. Give us any prediction.

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: One of the Maine teams wins its opener. All three are at home. The best bet is Williams at Bowdoin, since a Bates win over Amherst or a Colby win over Trinity would be a major shock. Both the Ephs and Polar Bears were 2-6 last season and return a modest number of starters (15 and 13). But Coach J.B. Wells built a winner at Endicott, and has a chance to begin his tenure at one of the NESCAC’s traditional also-rans with a win.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Hamilton beats Tufts. Hamilton will break its 20-game losing skid. The Continentals line up against Tufts, and it will largely come down to which team’s quarterback will be able to play well and command the offense better. Tufts’ Alex Snyder, the preseason’s projected starter, has some experience under his belt but he definitely had some kinks that needed ironing out. For Hamilton, Chase Rosenberg is likely back for his third year leading the team under center, but there has to be some hesitations since Rosenberg has yet to get a win under his belt.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: LaDarius Drew’s return won’t be enough for Wesleyan. Having one of the premier running backs in the conference return from an injury which kept him out in 2014 will definitely boost the Cardinals’ prospects this season, but not in the opening week vs. Middlebury. The Panthers, on the other hand, might run the table.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Elmhurst at Simpson. As the kind of programs who wouldn’t surprise us by challenging for their conference title, or finishing 7-3, 5-5 or 3-7, this is an intriguing Bluejays-Storm matchup. Simpson gave up two long TD catches to Artie Checchin and then a 14-play scoring drive just before the half against Elmhurst’s conference rival, Illinois Wesleyan. Was that just a game that got away or a throughly deserved 49-7 butt-whipping. Elmhurst’s early 31-17 win over Loras looks better as the Duhawks pile up yards and points, but I still don’t know what to make of the Bluejays.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: The Heidelberg at Ohio Northern game. I haven’t been particularly shy that I’m shaky on every OAC team below Mount Union. This is not the season we’ll have a stellar No. 2 OAC team shine in the postseason. I think John Carroll is down, Heidelberg is already 0-2, and last week Ohio Northern lost to Baldwin Wallace, which has its own W-L baggage. The Student Princes and Polar Bears are meeting for pride as much as anything else at this point, and last year’s 69-52 outcome leaves us wondering if we’ll see some defense emerge this time around.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: The St. Norbert-Illinois College game. St. Norbert doesn’t play Monmouth in the course of the regular Midwest Conference schedule, so this is one of the best analogies we have this season for a potential Midwest Conference championship game preview.

We invite you to add your predictions in the comments below. Download the Around the Nation podcast on Mondays, where Pat and Keith review the picks that were prescient, and those that were terribly off base.

Around the Nation podcast: Playoff picture takes place

Hardin-Simmons wasn’t a threat to Linfield, Willamette or UMHB but crushed Texas Lutheran.
Hardin-Simmons athletics photo

Subscribe to the Around the Nation Podcast in iTunes.

So let’s see, John Carroll beat Heidelberg, handily, and Wittenberg handled Wabash. Meanwhile, Hardin-Simmons delivered a reality check to Texas Lutheran and Wesley beat a D-I FCS team. (You know, the level known as Division I-AA.) Did John Carroll play its way into the playoffs? Or perhaps we should give them more than just lip service next week vs. Mount Union. Keith talks about what he saw when he watched the John Carroll-Heidelberg game.

Keith and Pat look at the remaining 10 automatic bids and what it will take to win them. Plus a long look at Pool B and another long look at Pool C. That and Continue reading

Triple Take: Middle of the road

Thomas More has been rolling up the numbers on offense, but the Saints’ defense has shone as well.
Thomas More athletics photo

Week 6 signifies the midway point in the regular season. The bright side to that realization is that there’s still a whole lot of football left to play for the 244 teams in Division III (well, we hope that we can include Merchant Marine in that list).

For teams that are eyeing playoff runs, this could just be the beginning. With five weeks of postseason play, that means we’re only about a third of the way to the Stagg Bowl. There’s much that has happened, and much yet to come.

Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps talk about the here and now of this weekend:

Game of the Week.
Ryan’s take: No. 23 Thomas More at Washington and Jefferson.
I almost held back on this because W&J’s baffling loss last week to Bethany took some of the luster out of this matchup. But then I thought about 2012, when TMC crushed W&J but lost two other conference games to miss out on the automatic bid to the playoffs. Well, here’s W&J’s opportunity to keep itself in the hunt and not get that second, and almost surely postseason-killing, loss in PAC play. There’s a lot riding on this one for the Presidents.
Pat’s take: Bridgewater (Va.) at Hampden-Sydney. I know I’ve said before that there has been some great history in this rivalry in the past 15 or so years. Both teams have taken an unexpected loss this season and that makes it a little more desperate situation for each, but especially for Bridgewater since its loss was a conference game.
Keith’s take: Redlands at Cal Lutheran. The last game of the 107 on the D-III schedule this week by more than two hours might also be the most hyped matchup of 1-2 teams ever. But let’s be honest, if the Bulldogs (who played No. 3 UMHB and No. 15 Pacific Lutheran) and Kingsmen (PLU then No. 2 Linfield) were based out East or in the Midwest, where there are roughly three dozen potential opponents within 200 miles of each campus, then each could have been less aggressive and started 3-0. But this is the AQ system at work. Both Mike Maynard and Ben McEnroe realize it does their players no service to start that way, especially with this clash — that will likely decide the SCIAC — so early. If you’ve already faced a top-3 team, nothing you see Saturday night will intimidate. CLU is plus-5 in turnovers despite its record, and Redlands needs to generate some offense besides RBs Bobby Brown and Curtis Tanquary.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Buena Vista at Wartburg.
I think the Beavers’ 0-4 record is a little deceiving — every opponent they’ve played is undefeated, a combined record of 16-0. And against Concordia-Moorhead and Coe, the scoreboard was close deep into the game. Wartburg’s three wins, on the other hand, come against teams that are a combined 3-10. Their common opponent, Bethel, ended with fairly similar results. Buena Vista has a chance to surprise people down the stretch.
Pat’s take: No. 6 St. Thomas at Gustavus Adolphus. Gustavus is certainly playing much better than it did last year, standing at 3-1 and blowing out two teams while only losing at Augsburg, by three. Last year St. Thomas didn’t have its best game but still led throughout. This year the Tommies may have a different feeling going to St. Peter, Minn., and can’t afford to sit their No. 1 quarterback, the way they did last week.
Keith’s take: Trinity (Conn.) at Tufts. The Jumbos are close to a breakthrough — last week they were a yard away. It won’t happen against the Bantams, who are the class of the NESCAC, at least for the time being. But if Tufts can convert some third downs early — they’re under 30% this season against a defense that gets off the field three out of every four — they can keep it closer than most would expect.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 10 UW-Whitewater.
I was unsure what to make of Whitewater coming into this year, after missing the postseason last fall. I even said in Kickoff that I didn’t think UW-W would make the playoffs this year, at least not with Platteville and Oshkosh and the likelihood of a spoiler team in the WIAC. Enter that spoiler team. UW-Stout, which is coming off back-to-back games (albeit losses) against North Central and Oshkosh, isn’t going to be intimidated by anything Whitewater has to offer.
Pat’s take: No. 5 Bethel. I believe Bethel is the better team here but I’m resting this pick on the fact that Bethel really shouldn’t have won* that game last year anyway. Concordia-Moorhead will be very motivated to make sure they are not in position to lose if they celebrate prematurely on the field at the end of the game.
Keith’s take: No. 5 Bethel. I know, I keep on repeating, but the other possibilities, like No. 17 Wabash, get mentioned elsewhere anyway. Moorhead is the most significant road trip in the MIAC, for starters. The Cobbers are one of those teams who has been on the verge of getting it done but stays underrated because they haven’t. They also haven’t been dominant in their 4-0 start, and would need to slow the Royals’ run game (228 yds/g) to pull the  upset. Luckily, they’ve allowed only 96 rushing yards per game so far.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: Maryville.
The Scots came into the season loaded with depth and hoping to shake off the injuries that have plagued them over the past two or three seasons. And to their credit, they’ve kept themselves in the conference hunt by knocking off Methodist (which beat USAC favorite Christopher Newport last week) and Averett and are currently sitting at 2-0 in conference play and 4-1 overall. On paper, they look like the best team in the USA South. Now, they have to further prove it on the field this weekend against one of the only other teams with a clean conference record, LaGrange. It’s a very winnable game for Maryville, if they can shore up their defense.
Pat’s take: Washington University-St. Louis. I even used the full name for a program that could conceivably run the table from here, go 8-2, end up with a reasonable strength of schedule and get a Pool B bid. If they do all that. This week’s game is at Hendrix and if the Warriors win, they become the Division III football state champions of Missouri, having beaten both of D-III teams from the state.
Keith’s take: Gallaudet. The Bison are a throwback, rushing for 350 yards per game — third nationally. They also stop the run and get off the field on third down (24.5 percent conversions allowed). Norwich comes down from Vermont having played three Liberty League teams prior to their ECFC-opening win over Becker last week. They’ve hung tough defensively against more talented teams, and even if Gallaudet is that, maybe they’ll have to make something happen in the passing game or on special teams to pull away.

Celebrating the red …
Ryan’s take: Wabash.
The scarlet-clad Little Giants take on Ohio Wesleyan, which in the big picture of the NCAC could be viewed as an up-and-coming program with their 9-1 2012 campaign and being 3-1 so far this fall. But what’s troubling is OWU’s overtime shootout loss to Denison, which is the toughest team they’ve played so far. Still, a loss to Denison means it could be a tricky Saturday against a 4-0 Wabash team that averages more than 50 points a game and has logged two shutouts so far. And OWU knows what that’s like after being shutout last year on their home turf by the Little Giants. No one has really been able to effectively pass against Wabash (Wooster did break the 200-yard mark), and while I’m sure that Mason Espinosa will make some plays and get some yards through the air, I don’t think it’ll be enough.
Pat’s take: Cortland State. The Red Dragons, who should have little trouble holding Montclair State’s offense in check considering the Red Hawks haven’t scored more than 17 points in a single game this season. Montclair is 1-4 with its only win coming against Salve Regina.
Keith’s take: Augsburg, at St. John’s. The Auggies nearly had their breakthrough last week at Bethel. They’ve got some interesting recent history with the Johnnies, but won’t need a late-game miracle if Ayrton Scott has a balanced game. The Johnnies are the rare team that gives up almost as much rushing (173 yards/game) as it does passing (181), and that plays into Scott’s hands. He passes for 254 yards a game but averages more than 20 carries as well, at 6.2 yards a run and 126 a game. And since the Auggies are technically Maroon, if the Johnnies win, I’m still right … sort of.

… white …
Ryan’s take: Rose-Hulman.
This perennial middle-of-the-pack HCAC team gets overlooked often in the discussions that veer toward Franklin and, to a lesser extent, Mount St. Joseph. That’s because the nation’s top teams (Mount Union, Linfield, etc.) and the bottom teams (North Park, Husson, etc.) get talked about often, and those in the middle don’t always get their voices heard. (Insert any government-shutdown political metaphor you want there.) What RHIT has done is be consistent and beat who it’s supposed to beat and be competitive against who it’s supposed to be competitive against. Rose should be able to handle its 1-4 Bluffton opponent this week, but with FC and MSJ to follow, keeping focused and not getting caught looking ahead is critical.
Pat’s take: Bowdoin. This has to be Bowdoin. Bowdoin’s only school color is white. And with a name like Polar Bears, it’s really difficult to justify another color. In addition to that, Bowdoin has already exceeded last year’s win total and has winless Hamilton taking the long trip to Brunswick, Maine.
Keith’s take: Shenandoah and Guilford. It was just a game last week, but after the upsets of Bridgewater and Washington & Lee, the Hornets’ trip to Greensboro is suddenly a big ODAC game. I’ve seen photos of Shenandoah wearing white at home, and Guilford wearing it on the road, so I don’t know which white I’m celebrating. Luckily, I really have no sense of which team should win here. The 2-2 Quakers have played four close games, and haven’t stood out in any particular area. Even their 24th-in-the-nation numbers defending the pass were helped by the fact W&L didn’t bother to try last week. Shenandoah is also 2-2 and all over the board, and was helped against Bridgewater by four turnovers.

… and blue.
Ryan’s take: Hartwick.
I’m eager to see if the Hawks can build upon their win over a good Ithaca team last week and upend St. John Fisher on Saturday. The Cardinals played a scary-close matchup against Frostburg State in Week 5, raising more than a few eyebrows. Both Hartwick and SJF are undefeated right now, and I think Hartwick is carrying the momentum. But this game isn’t do or die. The E8 is a regular contributor to Pool C playoff bids, and a loss here (especially a close one) won’t put either team out of the running.
Pat’s take: Merchant Marine. Plenty of reasons to be blue at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Yeah, no, not letting this go.
Keith’s take: Rochester. We’ll celebrate the Yellowjackets’ savvy move of dodging the shutdown, and by extension Merchant Marine, and lining up a game against Alfred State. It’s probably not the best matchup involving an Alfred — the Saxons’ clash with Ithaca could be a lot more exciting. But for both sides, who wear different shades of blue, a game is a game. Any one against a legitimate opponent should be celebrated. Would be nice if the Mariners’ careers weren’t being ruined, but least the Yellowjackets don’t have to go down on that sinking ship.