Triple Take: First onto the field

It’s easy to feel a little envious of Division I schools – they got their season underway last weekend, and we’ve had to bide our time an extra week.

But now, the wait is over.

Division III football is up to 244 teams this fall, which means we will get to enjoy hundreds of games over the next 11 weeks, with dozens going on each Saturday.

If you haven’t signed up for Kickoff 2013 already, please do so. It’s D3football.com’s preseason publication and is a great way to get introduced to the many things happening this year in Division III football. It has a slew of feature stories as well as rankings and interviews with coaches from every team in the nation.

D3football.com also brings you regional and national columns throughout the season, and every Friday morning, you’ll be able to dive into the column you’re reading right now, called Triple Take.

In Triple Take, Executive Editor and Publisher Pat Coleman, Managing Editor and National Columnist Keith McMillan and Senior Editor and former Mid-Atlantic Columnist Ryan Tipps break down some of the week’s biggest games, sleeper teams and those who we’re keeping an especially close eye on. From now until the Stagg Bowl, we’ll take you well beyond the Top 25.

We open up Triple Take to comments in the section below, or feel free to take the conversation to Twitter using the hashtag #3take. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: Pat (@d3football), Keith (@D3Keith) and Ryan (@NewsTipps).

Game of the week.
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Widener at No. 5 Wesley.
In Kickoff 2013, I foreshadowed a dropoff from Widener coming off an 11-win season. Here’s the chance for the Pride to prove me wrong. Their challenges stem from some rebuilding spots on offense (quarterback and offensive line), and a new head coach who has yet to get his feet wet leading this team on game day. Wesley is not without its own question marks, but the Wolverines are a team that reloads more often than it rebuilds –- and is prime position to start moving hard into the season.
Keith’s take: No. 20 Widener at No. 5 Wesley would have been my pick, but Ryan generously starts the blog post each week and gets first dibs. So even though there’s plenty of intrigue about what kind of team Widener will be, we can stay within a 75-mile radius of Philadelphia and pull in another monster matchup with top 25 implications. Rowan at Delaware Valley pits a pair of three-loss teams last season (although the Profs picked up their third in the playoffs) with the majority of their outstanding defenses back. The Aggies have seven starters from the No. 9 unit in the country and the Profs eight from No. 42. Rowan turns to Paul Hammersma at quarterback and would seem to have the greater struggle to score points, but if the Profs’ D slows QB Aaron Wilmer and Del Val, we’ll have a great game that could be the springboard to someone’s big season.
Pat’s take: No. 19 Franklin at No. 1 Mount Union. It’s the head coaching debut of Vince Kehres and we’re going to learn a lot. A couple of key pieces return on offense,  but after his arrest this week in an off-campus incident, Roman Namdar might not be making his debut at wide receiver. But I’d have to think that Kevin Burke at quarterback and Germany Woods at running back should have enough firepower on offense to make this an entertaining game, regardless of the experience of the offensive line.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Washington and Jefferson at Wooster.
The Scots tend to play up, and on paper, W&J is on a level above Wooster. If the Scots can establish a run game and make the Presidents give up some yards, there’s certainly a good opportunity to keep this game within seven to 10 points.
Keith’s take: UW-Eau Claire at No. 2 St. Thomas. Springfield and Western New England are surprisingly close geographically, as the Empire 8 and NEFC teams are in the same Massachusetts city. And that could be a good game. But I went Blugolds and Tommies because there’s a reason Glenn Caruso schedules that game for his MIAC powerhouse. He knows the middle-of-the-WIAC Blugolds will take on anyone and give his team a good Week 1 test, regardless of the final score.
Pat’s take (filed before Thursday’s game): Loras at No. 22 Elmhurst. This isn’t your older brother’s Bluejays team, nor is it Josh Williams’ older brother’s Bluejays team. We might not see all the effects of Elmhurst losing a great senior class and a head coach, but I’m not sure they’ll dominate Loras the way they should.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 16 Salisbury.
It’s been a few years since Christopher Newport played “spoiler” to the Top 25, but these recent seasons have also seen the Captains beset by a ridiculous amount of injury, which has ended any season momentum before it even starts. There’s a lot to be excited about with this CNU team, starting with the return of quarterback Lyndon Gardner, who was hurt for a good chunk of 2012. In turn, Salisbury is missing a few key pieces that will take some time to sort out, so the Captains could get the kind of win they haven’t seen since the turn of the decade.
Keith’s take: No. 24 St. John Fisher. This Cardinal-on-Cardinal action probably should have been my pick below for where a bird team is going to bite it, since I’d be guaranteed to be right. But SJFC’s trip to Otterbein — 16 starters back from last year’s 8-2 team — could mean a short stay in the top 25 for the Cardinals. Yes, those Cardinals.
Pat’s take: No. 17 Johns Hopkins. I mean, I don’t think Wittenberg losing to Butler would be an upset, although I certainly hope the Tigers can come away with a win against non-scholarship Butler. It’s hard to know what to make of Randolph-Macon or anyone in the ODAC this year, but I give the Yellow Jackets a shot.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: Case Western Reserve.
Even their losses last fall were tight because of how well the defense was able to keep the Spartans in their games. Well, consider most of that asset gone. Now, Case has to rely on its offense to provide a cushion when it can and to follow through and win games. The team is not going to do that until it can anoint a single quarterback that the team can rally around. There’s some dicey matchups midway through the schedule for this to remain a question mark for too long.
Keith’s take: Hardin-Simmons. Well it’s Week 1. Darn near everybody is on “Hmm, I’m curious about them” status. Fresh programs Southwestern, Hendrix and Berry all play their first games at home. But forced to choose, HSU and No. 11 UW-Platteville are two non-playoff teams that could go a long way this year. Since the Cowboys have their opener in Oregon, against sometimes-pretty-good Willamette, they’re the most intriguing watch of the week.
Pat’s take: Lewis and Clark. And if for no other reason than the fact that the Pioneers are off the west coast and into a part of the country where those of you who don’t stay up for the late games might learn something about them. It will be a Pioneering winner, for sure, whether that’s L&C or Utica.

Which 2012 playoff team is going to end up wishing it had a Week 1 bye?
Ryan’s take: St. Scholastica.
Sure the Saints should be able to stand up to the competition in the UMAC and claim another conference championship, but Whitworth’s defense will again be there to snuff out any spark early on in the opener.
Keith’s take: Framingham State. I don’t think they’ll wish they had a bye, necessarily, but they might lose at Endicott. The Gulls won this game 34-7 last season, but the Rams played Salve Regina in the NEFC title game and advanced to the playoffs. I think Framingham State would be eager for another crack at Endicott, so maybe they don’t fit perfectly in this category, but if I couldn’t squeeze them in here, I wouldn’t have mentioned the game at all. Melikke van Alstyne has made a name for himself in the Rams’ backfield, and he’s got four of his offensive line starters back.
Pat’s take: Concordia-Chicago. An extra week of practice would probably suit this program just fine — they lost more than 50 players and the head coach from last year and came into training camp with a depth chart in extreme flux. Lake Forest and the Cougars had a great showdown last year but it won’t be repeated.

Which bird will get bested?
Ryan’s take: The Falcons of Concordia (Wis.).
Concordia has a lot of things going well for it, including a solid group of returning players, to put the team in a prime position to compete for the top spot in the NACC. Hopes are high, and the expectations are not unreasonable. However, opponent Augsburg is a tough one right out of the gate. The Auggies, by their own right, are a team that’s been steadily improving its stock year to year – and they play in a conference against the toughest schools in Minnesota. This game will be good — better than the one last year –- but the Falcons are going to have to have to wait till next week to put one in the win column.
Keith’s take: The Seahawks of Salve Regina. I’ll have you know I put 14 games on my “to watch” list, and there were Golden Bears and Beavers and Boxers and Bulldogs and Engineers and Cowboys and Saints and Soup Bowls and Backyard Brawls. But darned if I didn’t have to get to the last game to get a bird team. By the way, Bridgewater State, our pick in Kickoff to win the MASCAC, has eight starters back on offense. Salve has all-American Phil Terio on defense, but lost five key starters and defensive-minded coach Bob Chesney.
Pat’s take: The Eagles of Northwestern (Minn.). Not sure how good a year to expect out of St. Olaf but Northwestern is breaking in a new quarterback for the first time in a few years while the Oles are breaking in a new head coach.

Which long losing streak is likely to end?
Ryan’s take: Hartwick.
Certainly not the longest of down streaks to be riding, but the seven-game skid after opening 2012 with three wins had to have been disappointing for the Hawks. But that’s not terribly far removed from the results of the past few seasons, since Jason Boltus quarterbacked the team back in 2008. Last fall, Hartwick crushed Husson in the season opener 55-14. There’s no reason to think they aren’t motivated to repeat the feat on Saturday.
Keith’s take: McDaniel. Catholic and Western Maryland used to be one of the games of the year back in the days when I wrote the Around the Mid-Atlantic column. Now it’s the game where I pick the Green Terror, which has lost 12 in a row but outdid Stevenson in a scrimmage and has star running back Joe Rollins prepped for a big final season, to break a losing streak. Go figure. Simple Daddy, don’t you know that things move in cycles?
Pat’s take: Maine Maritime. Thirteen losses in a row is a huge comedown for a team that was competitive in a 2009 playoff game at Montclair State. The Mariners losing to Anna Maria to start last season was a bit of a shocker and surely Maine Maritime is eager to not let that happen again.

Offseason huddle up: What’s happened in January

The Division III football season starts in August and wraps up nicely by the end of December. While the intensity is scaled back during the offseason months, there are always things happening. Here’s an attempt to chronicle, and start a centralized conversation (there’s always activity on D3boards.com, of course) about some of them.

Mount Union wide receiver Jasper Collins played in the East-West Shrine Game, the only D-III player to do so. Although he didn’t come out of the regular season with the biggest buzz as the next pro from D-III, at the moment he’s looking like the player most likely to be drafted.

In Josh Buchanan’s Jan. 24 Top 100 small-school prospects, Texas Lutheran kicker Allen Cain is the highest-ranked D-III player at No. 35, and is a name D3football.com had been hearing as someone with an NFL future since his junior season. But kickers tend not to get drafted. Collins is at No. 41, and on Jan. 25, Buchanan tweeted that Collins was the highest-rated small-school player on his board yet to be invited to the NFL combine. (Here’s his list of players who have been invited)

RPI QB Mike Hermann (No. 59) and Cal Lutheran WR Eric Rogers (No. 79) are the other D-III players on Buchanan’s list, which is consistent with what we’d heard when we’d done our own reporting on it. During the playoffs, we featured Collins, and in Kickoff ’12, we spoke with Cain, Hermann and Rogers.

HIRING: The coaching carousel keeps spinning, although I guess at this point it’s slowed down some. Even D-III die-hards are often unfamiliar with the names of rising assistant coaches. When Isaac Collins left national quarterfinalist Widener for the job at D-II Seton Hill (Pa.), he left behind a team that’s playoff-ready if it can find a quarterback to replace Chris Haupt.

TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta got the job. I know next to nothing about him and don’t have an opinion on the hire. But what was interesting were two names tweeted out by Widener broadcaster @b34curran as finalists for the job: Case Western Reserve coach Greg Debeljak and UW-Whitewater defensive coordinator Brian Borland.

Borland was a holdover at UW-W from the Bob Berezowitz era and masterminded the defenses of all four Warhawks national champions. I’d never realized he was looking for head coaching jobs, but it tends to be a natural progression for successful coaches. Sometimes particular jobs open up that are appealing, or life circumstances or behind-the-scenes conditions at work make a job switch appealing to a coach the same way it would to those of us in regular employment. Passing on a man who played a large role in winning four D-III titles and seven straight Stagg Bowl trips puts a lot of pressure on Acosta and Widener.

Debeljak, the head coach at CWRU, went 48-6 with the Spartans from 2007-11 before going 6-4 this season and has had a successful nine-season run in Cleveland. Also a pretty accomplished coach for Widener to pass on.

I understand as well as anyone that D-III ADs hire leaders of men first, and winners second. Acosta must be an impressive guy, moreso than just having ties to the region and having had some success at TCNJ. I’ll be interested to see how quickly Widener starts next season. Several of their stud players return, and if they adapt to the new coach quickly, they could again be a force.

Elmhurst also made a coaching switch when Tim Lester, who lifted the program from mediocre to the playoffs, left to become quarterbacks coach at Syracuse. There are Western Michigan ties there, and it made sense for him to go. It also made sense for Elmhurst to stay in-house and hire Joe Adam. Players almost always want the new coach to come from within, so that move I imagine is well received. It’ll also keep the Elmhurst recruiting pipeline going — Adam ran both the defense and coordinated recruiting. One interesting player is already in the Elmhurst program though — Josh Williams, Gagliardi Trophy winner Scottie Williams’s younger brother, started out at UW-Whitewater before joining his brother in the backfield. Scottie is graduating, so Joe Adam will have to move the program forward without with the 2,000-yard rusher.

QUICK HITS: According to the East Texas Baptist website, wide receiver Kwame Spikes played in three D-III-friendly all-star games: The National Bowl, all-American Bowl and the Dream Bowl. That might not be unprecedented — and who’s to say he didn’t play in the D-III Senior Classic as well — but it’s the first time I’ve heard of a player participating in that many. I always thought two was the limit. …

St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso picked up his third Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award back at the beginning of the month (Here’s his acceptance speech). Perhaps since the Tommies made the Stagg Bowl this was his best work, but he’s been a coach on the rise for several years now. It would be nice if the award acknowledged the next coach on the rise, or someone who did a lot with less talent this year. The other finalists, UW-Oshkosh’s Pat Cerroni, Lake Forest’s Jim Catanzaro, Concordia-Chicago’s Lonnie Pries and Coe’s Steve Staker, each had strong resumes as well. I’m a voter for the award, and I enjoy Coach Caruso. But I would also like the award to show the full spectrum of coaching excellence in D-III. …

It can be tough to keep track of the D-III postseason events, with limited publicity and history. But the inaugural Dream Bowl took place in Salem this year, giving D-III players at least five postseason opportunities now (including Tazon de Estrellas, D3 Senior Classic and the others mentioned above). I don’t know much about how it went, but here’s SUNY-Maritime cornerback Jeremy Garcia’s take on the experience.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Around the Nation’s Year in Review went up earlier this month. What did you see that you like, or that I missed? Comment here.

YOUR FEEDBACK: What else has attracted your attention so far this offseason? Leave in the comments, or shoot me an e-mail for the next blog post.

ATN Podcast: Down to the final eight

Jasper Collins
Jasper Collins caught five touchdown passes. That’s all. No big deal.
Photo by Dan Poel for d3photography.com

Subscribe to the Around the Nation Podcast in iTunes.

When you have just eight games in a given week, we definitely have time to do a thorough breakdown, and a rundown of the four games coming up next week. So no, there weren’t too many surprises in this particular second round of the playoffs but the highest-ranked teams advanced in every instance.

Updated bracket, playoff features

Pat and Keith give their strengths and weaknesses for each of the eight remaining teams, looking at the matchups. Plus get Widener’s take on Salisbury and the Pride’s take on Mount Union. UW-Oshkosh linebacker Ryan Stefaniak talks about the play that turned the game, then his coach disputes that that was the turning point at all.

Plus, we talk about the retirement of legendary St. John’s coach John Gagliardi, his legacy, and explain who this Mike Grant person is everyone is talking about as the possible successor.

Keith and Pat talk about that and more in this week’s Around the Nation Podcast, sponsored by the City of Salem, hosts of Stagg Bowl XL. Tickets on sale now!

Hit play, or subscribe to get this podcast on your phone or portable device.

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Postgame show

Here’s this week’s D3football.com reports, highlight packages and postgame interviews.

And this week’s photo galleries from our friends at d3photography.com: