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A crack in the purple armor

Well, there you go — a crack in the purple armor favored by UW-Whitewater. This gives hope to a lot of people around Division III, but should it? What have we really learned from this weekend’s games? We look at that story, plus, an extended breakdown of the Linfield Wildcats, after Pat made the trip to McMinnville, Ore. Plus, which are the teams on the rise? What key highlights happened below the radar? Pat and Keith answer those questions, plus hand out their game balls, on this week’s Around the Nation Podcast.

The Around the Nation Podcast is a weekly conversation between Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan covering the wide range of Division III football. It drops on Monday morning weekly throughout the season.

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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.

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Triple Take: Let’s get this 2015 thing started

It’s been a long time since we last saw a Division III game that counted. The Stagg Bowl was way back on Dec. 19, a mere 258 days ago. It’s been a longer wait for the 240-odd teams whose seasons ended before Salem, and still longer for McMurry, which returns to D-III after leaving following the 2011 season. Belhaven comes over from NAIA, and has never played a D-III game; Neither has Finlandia, which plays its program’s first game Saturday against Alma.

There are six Thursday night games, 12 on Friday and 92 on Saturday. Subtract the seven non-D-III opponents, and 195 of the record 247 teams that will play D-III football this season are in action on opening weekend.

Enjoy it. Whether you’re playing, watching or involved in game day some other way, it’s a three-hour break from everything else in the world. It’s a chance to see old friends and make new ones, to watch some players dig deep and pull out something from inside that they didn’t even know they had. It’s a chance to watch student-athletes who won’t forgo the first part of that deal.

I played tackle football for 13 consecutive seasons, between Pop Warner in Somerville, Mass., high school in Runnemede, N.J. and at Randolph-Macon in Ashland, Va. In that picture below, which was taken in one of my first seasons writing for D3football.com, I’m 23. Which reminds me that I’ve now not been playing football for more consecutive autumns than I played. All of which is to say, this weekend, if you’re a player, coach, parent or fan, take it all in and savor it. It goes by quickly. Teams only get eight to ten game days a season, unless they play really well and advance through the playoffs. But as those accustomed to playing 15 weeks would tell you, greatness happens one game at a time (a UW-Whitewater standard) and starts with respecting your opponent (something I’ve heard more than once at Mount Union).

Respect the game. Enjoy it. Savor it. Finally, it’s back.

— Keith McMillan

Triple Take is our weekly predictions column. Typically it appears on Friday morning, but with games kicking off on Thursday night, we’re presenting it a few hours early.

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 19 St. John Fisher at No. 23 Thomas More. You can’t really go wrong with a clash of ranked teams to kick things off. There’s lots to see here; The Saints (that’s Thomas More, not the school with ‘Saint’ in its name) opened with Wesley last year and stood up to the national power in a 35-21 loss. This game will be a challenge as well, and maybe one the Saints can pull off on the way to a PAC title. But TMC will have to do it without graduated All-American running back Domonique Hayden. SJFC is among the best in an expanded Empire 8, and the Cardinals will have a rough game nearly every week. They can’t afford to start 0-1.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 10 Wabash at Hampden-Sydney. As a Wabash grad, I’m coming out of the Triple Take gate playing the homer card. Wabash will probably be a better team than it was in 2014; Sydney is projected to be down a little. But that doesn’t take away from the quality of this matchup. As I talked about last year in my preseason Around the Nation column, the meeting between them is historic, as Wabash and H-SC are the only two D-III schools that abide by an all-male classroom atmosphere. And this is the first home-and-home series between them on the gridiron. I had talked with coaches and administrators at the schools as far back as 2008 about something like this taking place, and I’m excited that their enthusiasm translated into reality. Last year finished with a 34-21 Wabash win in Indiana. Kudos to both schools for putting a challenging nonconference game on their schedules. (Also, this is where I’ll be spending opening weekend.)
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Rowan at No. 12 Widener. There are a lot of good games this week, right out of the chute. I like this one, in part because it’s now Rowan’s only non-conference game, and I wouldn’t mind at all if these teams played every year. There’s reason to have at least a couple of questions about Widener this year, based on who graduated, but I’ll also be intrigued to see how Rowan’s retooled offense works out. Goodbye spread, hello power offense. Should be interesting. Rowan would like nothing more than to slip back across the Commodore Barry Bridge with a signature win.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: MIT at WPI. The Engineers … oh wait, they’re both Engineers. MIT had a magical undefeated season last year, but they pulled out multiple close wins, and that will be difficult to replicate, especially with five of the first six games on the road. I think they do it once more in this Week 1 Friday nighter, even though Zach Grasis and WPI will grind it out and make MIT earn it.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Mount St. Joseph at Augustana. I’m not ready yet to buy into this Lions team as being one of the better ones of recent years — we’ll see in a few weeks if they’re competing for the HCAC’s title. They lost a lot of starters and will have to break in a new (potentially young) quarterback. Last year, Mount St. Joseph showed no mercy against Augustana, being up 37-17 going into the fourth quarter before surging to a 58-25 win. Augustana has a new coach and is tailoring its offensive approach, giving them room to put more points on the board this time around.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Alma at Finlandia. I mean, Finlandia isn’t surprisingly close to anyone in a geographic sense. Alma is the closest in-state rival and the Scots will still need to take a seven-hour bus ride to get to Finlandia. (I’m closer and I live two states away.) I’m hoping for a good game in Finlandia’s first-ever football game. A win might be too much to ask for but Alma (six wins in four seasons) hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire of late.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 12 Widener, against Rowan. Considering Thomas More over St. John Fisher would be fudging, this is the only logical option. The Profs bring back their star on offense, might find a role for a former star from Lafayette, and will take a short trip over the bridge, possibly bringing along the support a home team would have. Rowan isn’t favored against a Widener team that was in last season’s final eight, but they have a shot.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Bethel. There’s not much jumping out in the inaugural week of college football as a safe — or even likely — bet for this category. Bethel graduated its conference MVP-winning quarterback, so if there’s ever going to be rust on the wheels that a team like UW-Stout could exploit, it’s going to be in Week 1.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: None. And considering this is the first week, and the first-week poll always has the most questions, that’s saying something. I’ve mentioned Widener above and there’s another team out there who tends to struggle with its Week 1 opponent but honestly, they always win when I pick against them so it’s time to stop trying. Chalk in Week 1.

Which team that finished strong in 2014 is going to have the biggest Week 1 letdown?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Curry. The Colonels won their final three after an 0-7 start, but it was slightly misleading, because two of the wins were against 1-9 Nichols and 3-6 Maine Maritime. To start 2015 off right, Curry must win under the lights on Friday night at Bridgewater State, which brings back seven on each side of the ball from a 5-5 team. The Colonels have about the same number of starters back, and the benefit of unfamiliarity; The schools, not far from one another in Massachusetts, south of Boston, did not play last season.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Rowan. The Profs ended the last regular season with three straight wins, a share of the NJAC conference title and a trip to the playoffs. But also like last year, they’ll kickoff another season going up against Widener. The thoroughly battle-tested Pride are shaping up to be just as formidable as they proved to be in 2014, and the Profs are going to have a tough go of it right from the start.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Morrisville State (vs. St. Lawrence). This is the week we’ll get to find out how much of the Mustangs’ 2014 surge was the Lemar Johnson show. Meanwhile, St. Lawrence has legitimate reasons to think it can contend for the playoffs, and not in a 5-5, manage-to-snag-the-automatic-bid way. SLU slipped early last season but isn’t likely to let that happen again.

Which lopsided matchup would you most like to be more competitive?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No.13 Johns Hopkins at Randolph-Macon. In Week 1 last year, my alma mater was a seven-win team with its star quarterback back, going up to face the perennially ranked Blue Jays. They lost, 42-3. The quarterback is now a member of the coaching staff. And Johns Hopkins is still ranked 13th. Do I need more than that?
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Guilford at Greensboro. I’m certainly not begrudging Guilford for stepping up its game and showing on the field that it is ready and determined to make a playoff run this fall. But this crosstown rivalry represents something more than just a W or an L for the teams — it’s also charity event known as the Gate City Soup Bowl. People who come get their admission fee waived if they bring canned goods to donate. Success of the food drive means getting people to the stadium; getting them to the stadium means presenting them with an exciting game to watch. Guilford has owned most of the history of this series, capped with last year’s 52-0 victory. It would be fun to see these two teams grind out a close matchup in this 19th meeting, but I fear that may not come to pass.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Bethany at No. 2 Mount Union. I mean, just for variety’s sake. Let’s see the new Mount Union offense put through its paces for more than a couple of quarters. Not expecting anything outlandish, but wouldn’t it be nice to see the Machine need to disengage the cruise control?

Pick a color: Green or yellow

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Yes. We’ll be watching to see if Illinois Wesleyan (green) is a CCIW challenger, in its opener against usually-the-class-of-the-HCAC Franklin (yellow). Since I’m supposed to choose, give me our preseason No. 59 IWU, with its eight returning starters on offense and nine on D, in a mild upset over No. 50. Kickoff projected the Titans to go 8-2 off a 4-6 2014.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Green, of Belhaven. Good riddance to the NAIA and welcome to Division III! And, of course, welcome back to D-III Coach Mumme. It’s likely the Blazers will begin their tenure here with a win.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Green. With St. Norbert, under a new coach again, its third in three years, hosting Carthage, which has fallen so far that they’re a unanimous pick to finish behind North Park, the CCIW’s doormat of the decades.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: McMurry. Both teams in the St. Lawrence-Morrisville State game intrigue me, but since Pat touched on that one above, and Ryan mentioned Belhaven, let’s go with the War Hawks. I’m curious about what kind of team they’ll field after recruiting scholarship athletes in Texas for a few years, only to lose some of them when they moved back to a non-scholarship model.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Stevenson. The Mustangs made some noise en route to their best performance in the MAC ever. But can they sustain having improved their record so drastically? Moreover, can they really make the surge count and compete for a title spot (or at least a Pool C bid)? The opener against N.C. Wesleyan is winnable, but it’ll be more challenging this year to put up 40 points like in 2014.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Delaware Valley. Also green, and yellow (OK, really it’s gold). And those things I said about what Widener lost over the offseason go triple for Del Val, which lost an NFL prospect wide receiver, one of its best-ever quarterbacks, and basically starts over in terms of returning starters. But Montclair doesn’t have the type of offense that will let them run away and hide from people, so I expect the Aggies to hang in this game and keep it close longer than one might otherwise expect from them this season. Should be an interesting year in Doylestown, Pa.

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.