Triple Take, Week 5: Let the conference rumbles begin

Linfield has lined up against Chapman and Redlands so far, and now PLU will get its crack at Linfield. (Photo by Dan Harris, d3photography.com)

Linfield has lined up against Chapman and Redlands so far, and now PLU will get its crack at the Wildcats. (Photo by Dan Harris, d3photography.com)

If it hasn’t already where you’re from, conference play begins in Week 5. From the ASC to the WIAC (and places in between — the CCIW, ECFC, IIAC, MIAA, ODAC and SCIAC get underway, while all but one game has yet to be played in NJAC and NWC), the games against familiar rivals are on deck. Twenty-four of the 28  conferences come with an automatic bid, so even though it’s too early to talk postseason, it’s never too early to consider playoff implications. Saturday’s games mean something long term.

In short, though, we have a doozy upon us this weekend. Pat, Ryan and I sift through which of the 244 teams are most worth keeping an eye on, via seven categories.

 — Keith McMillan

Game of the week
Keith’s take: No. 22 Concordia-Moorhead at No. 12 Bethel. The game in Washington, Pa. is more likely to be a defacto conference title game, but the one in Arden Hills, Minn. has even more on the line, and could feature the best-played football in the country on Saturday. The Cobbers and Royals each practice the lost art of playing defense, ranking in the national top 20 in total (averaging 263 and 241 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (a shade under 13 points per game each). Although Bethel is already on thin ice because of its season-opening loss to Wartburg, the MIAC has sent two teams to the playoffs nine times since the expansion in 1999, and this might end up a preview of this year’s duo. On top of all that, this insane thing happened last time these teams met at Bethel, and the specter of that game hangs over this one.
Ryan’s take: No. 5 Linfield at No. 14 Pacific Lutheran. I’m filing my take early, so I don’t get to see what Pat and Keith have written, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they chose this game, too. Never mind the fact that it’s a matchup between top-25 teams, but it has also grown into a marquee conference clash over the past few seasons. And it’s almost becoming a tradition for these two squads to meet twice in the fall, once in the regular season and then again in the first round of the playoffs. Not surprisingly, both are undefeated, and both have stout defenses. And because Linfield is excelling offensively with the pass while PLU is doing so with the run, these two teams would be candidates for the “contrasting styles” question farther down in Triple Take, if they weren’t so highly ranked, that is.
Pat’s take: No. 20 Thomas More at Washington and Jefferson. While all of those conferences listed above are getting started, the PAC is deep into its conference schedule, which started in Week 1 because of the conference’s expansion to include Carnegie Mellon and Case. With Thomas More already having taken a loss and the committee having passed over 1-loss PAC teams in the past because of strength of schedule, there may only be room for one PAC team in this year’s playoffs. Barring a later upset, the winner of this game will be in the driver’s seat to get that spot.

Surprisingly close game
Keith’s take: Gallaudet at Anna Maria. The Bison won nine games, made the playoffs and had an NFL prospect last season. The AmCats are in their sixth football season, and have six wins total. But you can expect this one to be surprisingly close, if only because neither side can really score. Anna Maria has seven touchdowns in three games this season, but that’s seven more than Gallaudet, who have been outscored 50-2 so far. They’re part of the reason why, in contrast with conferences like the ASC, OAC and ODAC, where teams average more than 33 points per game, the ECFC is the nation’s lowest-scoring conference, at 15.41 points per team per game. There will probably be some success for both offenses on Saturday, but the casts have changed since last season, so don’t expect a playoff team vs. doormat blowout.
Ryan’s take: Millsaps at Hendrix. I’m looking forward to seeing this showdown happen. After the Majors got blasted by East Texas Baptist last week, there are a lot of questions hanging around for a team that was 9-1 last year but starts 2014 at 1-2. Tackling needs to improve; turnovers need to stop. ETBU’s 715 yards of total offense is a scary thing, and Millsaps should be scared if the team can’t keep those kinds of numbers in check going forward. But while Millsaps is a team on the slide, Hendrix appears to be one on the rise. A 3-0 start is something for the Warriors to be very happy about, and the fact that they were able to have their offense step up in games, as well as the defense to shine, shows how versatile this second-year program can be.
Pat’s take: Washington U. at Berry. One could play the comparative scores game because already this year, Rhodes has played both Berry and Wash U. But I just expect this to be close because it’s a bit of a trip for the Bears and Berry is getting better. They only lost to Rhodes 12-0 and lost 28-27 at LaGrange.

Most likely top-25 team to be upset
Keith’s take: No. 18 UW-Platteville. I ruled out the top-25 clashes as picks here, and the luster is off games like Salisbury at No. 7 St. John Fisher and No. 8 Wartburg at Central. Even Louisiana College at No. 4 Wesley isn’t as exciting as it first appeared. So to truly go out on a limb, I’ll take 0-3 UW-Eau Claire, playing at Carson Park in the WIAC opener. The Blugolds have only scored 24 points this season, which makes this an even more risky pick, but they’ve played three perennial midwest powers  St. Thomas, St. John’s and Wheaton. UW-Platteville makes four current top 25 teams in four weeks for UW-EC, and if the Blugolds are not demoralized, they could catch the Pioneers sleeping. Last year, Eau Claire led at halftime and after a 98-yard third-quarter kick return before Platteville scored the final four TDs. UW-P this year has been a bit of an enigma, winning by 60 in Week 1 and squeezing past Dubuque in Week 2, and it’s had two weeks to stew over a 28-7 loss to North Central. So the upset is no small task.
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Thomas More. While this qualifies for this category because the Saints are in the Top 25, it barely counts as an upset when the opponent is undefeated conference rival Washington and Jefferson. Not to mention that both are statistically in the top 10 in total offense in the nation.
Pat’s take: No. 25 Lycoming, I suppose. The MAC unbeaten teams will start to knock each other off this week. In order to believe Stevenson can beat Lycoming, however, one has to think that Stevenson is ready to make a big leap forward. The Mustangs were fairly dominant in Week 1 vs. North Carolina Wesleyan but have won the next three games by a touchdown apiece, so they’re barely hanging onto this 4-0. They won’t be able to get away with 4-for-18 passing this week.

Pick a team that will open conference play in dramatic fashion
Keith’s take: Willamette, vs. George Fox. The dramatics for the Bearcats might be of the record-setting variety as opposed to the last-second type. Willamette rushes for 285 yards a game, has had two weeks since a 42-28 win at Cal Lutheran, and faces first-year George Fox, which has allowed 1,028 yards in its two losses. The real curiosity might be finding out just how many NWC contenders there are, which means you’ll have to pay attention to Linfield-PLU and Whitworth-Pacific as well this weekend.
Ryan’s take: Redlands, at Pomona-Pitzer. An 0-2 record doesn’t tell us much if those two games came against No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor and No. 5 Linfield. The Bulldogs were expected to lose both of them (maximum chalk). But this week is Redlands’ chance to show what they learned from those experiences and put the lessons into action. Opponent Pomona-Pitzer should be a great way to make sure everything is clicking, to earn a win – and be set for the following week against Cal Lutheran and later against the rest of the SCIAC.
Pat’s take: Augustana, vs. Elmhurst. The CCIW opens this weekend with the potential for three blowouts, while this game, between teams expected to be in the middle of the conference, has the potential for some heroics. It matched a couple of players who have already had standout individual performances this year: Augustana defensive back Tim Maroder (four interceptions vs. Loras) and Elmhurst running back Josh Williams (306 rushing yards at Olivet).

Which team lost badly last week, but will bounce back?
Keith’s take: Southern Virginia, at Kean. Since these teams lost 47-7 to No. 4 Wesley and 73-7 to No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor last Saturday, facing each other should be a relief. Both teams are 0-3. The Knights have a significant road trip to North Jersey ahead, but they’ve faced three high-powered offenses in Methodist, Guilford and Wesley. Kean has managed just 49 points total this season. (Millsaps, facing Hendrix after a 68-15 loss to ETBU, is a candidate here as well.)
Ryan’s take: Williams, at Bates. Sure, it’s tough to come off of a 38-0 loss to Trinity (Conn.), but if Williams can channel some of the success it found two weeks ago in its opener from quarterback Austin Lommen and running back Alex Scyocurka, then there’s a good chance that the Ephs can look sharp this weekend against Bates.
Pat’s take: UW-Oshkosh, vs. UW-Stout. The Titans had a bye this past week, but they are 0-3 coming into this game, having not played a single Division III school. Getting to play UW-Stout will be better than playing South Dakota State, that’s for sure.

Pick a winner in a matchup of contrasting styles
Keith’s take: LaGrange, at Maryville. The Panthers contrast with themselves, much less the other team. LaGrange, behind QB Graham Craig, has the nation’s fifth-most-prolific passing offense and the 227th-best passing defense. They keep it interesting though, scoring between 28 and 35 each time out, allowing between 27 and 37, and having a two-point loss, a one-point win and two overtime wins. Across the way, Maryville brings a 286-yard-per-game rushing attack (11th-best nationally) and a scoring average of  get this  28.8 points per game.
Ryan’s take: Guilford, vs. Washington and Lee. Well, it’s almost unfair when I look at the contrast between the Quakers and Generals. Guilford has one of the best passing games in the nation, and, just as importantly, it is third statistically in turnover margin. Washington and Lee, on the other hand, slots in at No. 168 in turnover margin, being negative-2 on the season. And they have almost no pass game to speak of, relying on their ground attack  which isn’t close to where it’s been in recent seasons. Sure enough, these two teams contrast each other, just not in a flattering way.
Pat’s take: Illinois College, vs. Ripon. After two losses in a row, the Blueboys need to get well, and fast. The good thing is that neither of those games counted against IC’s conference record in the Midwest Conference South Division, and this week’s game vs. Ripon won’t, either. The run-heavy Red Hawks are also 1-2, but with the only win vs. Rockford. Meanwhile, most people should know Illinois College likes to throw the ball.

They’ll be on your radar
Keith’s take: Bethany. Taking it on the chin from Mount Union in Week 1 perhaps was a wise strategy. The Bison have three wins since, including two on the road, and a 33-27 victory against Waynesburg last week. After 35 carries for just 75 yards in a 58-7 loss to the Purple Raiders, Bethany’s ground game has been stout. They’re running the ball an average of 46 times per game for almost 200 yards a week, with a three-headed attack: Running backs Jalen Holmes and Brandon Hill, and quarterback Brian Vales. Case Western Reserve has only allowed 83 yards per game rushing, so this clash will be worth watching.
Ryan’s take: Kalamazoo. I’m owning up to my mistake from last week, when I wrote about this game a week before it was to happen. So a cut-and-paste from that, which still applies today: I picked Benedictine in Kickoff to perform better this season than it is, and because the squad has stumbled each week, we’re now staring down a game between two winless teams. K-zoo has faced decent opposition as a whole, and the Hornets have shown that they are more able to hang with the team on the other sidelines. The Eagles’ competition has been good (their opponents are a combined 8-1), but nothing says trial by fire like K-zoo’s game against Wheaton. I think the Hornets will be better prepared for this one.
Pat’s take: The Rhodes-Chicago winner. This is a key Pool B game on Saturday, a matchup of unbeatens. Rhodes put up 41 on Chicago in Memphis in 2013, winning 41-34, but expect a lower-scoring game.

Triple Take: Rivalry week

Chris Haupt
With an extra week to wait and prepare, Chris Haupt and Widener need a win against Delaware Valley to secure a playoff bid.
Widener athletics file photo

For all the games played in the regular season, those that live as part of storied rivalries are among the greatest.

It’s special for the players, alumni and parents who get to be a part of those traditions. For no matter how bad a season has been, rivalry week offers a chance at a bit of redemption, a chance to play with heart and end the school year – or even a college career – with a smile. From Monon and Cortaca to Bowls and Games, the edge-of-your-seat excitement happens all across the country.

Pat, Keith and Ryan take you into Week 11, with Selection Sunday looming just beyond.

Game of the week.
Ryan’s take: Delaware Valley at No. 9 Widener.
There has been no shortage of questions about the Pride’s strength throughout the season. They’ve beaten their three best opponents by only a combined 13 points. And their lesser opponents? Well, those teams have been absolutely pummeled. The Aggies are the last hurdle to Widener’s ride into the postseason, but oh what a hurdle. After a fall from grace with two opening losses, DelVal regained its form and has been more convincing than Widener down the stretch. Both teams are statistically sound, but Widener will want to win this one to avoid an ugly three-way tie for the top of the MAC. Of course, DelVal will want to win to force just such a situation. This will be a conference people could be talking a lot about come Sunday.
Pat’s take: St. John’s at No. 22 Bethel. Once upon a time, St. John’s had beaten Bethel 20 consecutive meetings. But these days, the Royals have the upper hand. Bethel’s playoff hopes are already flagging thanks to the loss to St. Olaf and it can’t afford to lose this game. Meanwhile, St. John’s needs the win to finish with a winning record … and who knows, it might take some extra motivation from the possibility that John Gagliardi might be coaching his last game.
Keith’s take: Adrian at No. 17 Huntingdon. Since I wrote the Around the Nation column largely on the implications of this game, there’s no need to rehash that if you’ve been following along. But I didn’t get into player matchups or X’s and O’s, and there’s something big to focus on here: Adrian is second in the country in scoring defense (10.67 points per game to No. 1 Mount Union’s 3.11) and held five consecutive MIAA opponents in the single digits before Albion scored 19 in an overtime loss last week. Huntingdon scores 39.25 points per game and puts up 417.75 yards (numbers that are just 16th and 54th nationally), with multitalented RB Trevor Manuel guiding the way. Adrian LBs Deonte Bridgman and Hunter Juntunen lead the Bulldogs’ defense, which is adept at stopping the run (1oth nationally) and the pass (fifth). Huntingdon DL D.J. Chappell and Courtney Moss have been spending time in opponents’ backfields. This game is a curiosity because of the mismatch of styles, as well as D-III regions. The MIAA isn’t exactly known as one of D-IIIs top conferences, and Huntingdon, if it wins big by scoring a bunch, will be making a statement for playoff inclusion and for the quality of D-III ball in the deep south.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Maryville at Ferrum.
Both teams have a lot to play for here, and it’s rare in recent years for this game to be separated by more than one score. The Scots are trying to secure their first winning season since 2007, and this under the leadership of a first-year coach. Ferrum, on the other hand, could be propelled into the postseason if Christopher Newport suffers an upset loss. Expect this matchup to go down to the bone.
Pat’s take: Denison at Kenyon. Denison has a huge chance to play spoiler here. And who thought we would ever be talking about someone spoiling Kenyon’s playoff chances? Denison’s 3-6 is just as misleading as Kenyon’s 6-3. For two members of the same conference, they have fairly few common opponents.
Keith’s take: Buena Vista at Dubuque. The Beavers, in hindsight, played perhaps the nation’s toughest opening five games (a distinction that previously belonged to Buffalo State). They went 0-5 against four teams that have playoff aspirations (UW-Platteville, Concordia-Moorhead, Bethel and Coe) and Wartburg, allowing 48.6 points per game and losing each contest by between 21 and 51 points. Since, however, they’ve reeled off four wins in varying fashions, and can get to .500 on the season by beating last season’s IIAC champ, who also comes in at 4-5. The Spartans can still wing it, as Sean Anderson averages seven catches a game and Austin Morgan (6.89) is just a shade behind, and you’d expect them — by reputation and name recognition — to run up some high totals against BVU. The Beavers allowed 369 yards and four passing touchdowns against Simpson last week, but they won, 29-27, and are playing to end the season on a high note, while Dubuque is undoubtedly disappointed with its encore.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 18 Waynesburg.
One- and two-point wins against teams that are 2-7 don’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence, especially when this week’s opponent is veteran power Washington and Jefferson. Top 25 voters (myself included) held off a long time pulling the trigger on the Yellow Jackets because the strength of schedule and margins of victory just didn’t stack up well compared with the rest of the teams being considered. With a loss, Waynesburg could very well be sitting nervously as a 9-1 at-large team on Selection Sunday.
Pat’s take: No. 19 Cortland State. The Cortaca Jug is motivation enough for either team, and Ithaca has had a pretty good season. The Bombers lost each of the past two meetings, including being dominated last year in a 27-3 loss. There seems to be some gamesmanship going on with the status of Ithaca quarterback Phil Neumann as well, but I wouldn’t expect Ithaca to come with anything better than its best possible performance.
Keith’s take: No. 24 Pacific Lutheran. In trying to find a team that isn’t mentioned elsewhere in Triple Take, my options were limited; even more so when look for one that might actually lose. In a game at Menlo, in California’s bay area, the Seattle-area Lutes travel to face a team that’s lost four in a row. The Oaks, a former NWC and D-III member, have faced No. 3 Linfield, No. 6 Wesley and NAIA No. 1 Marian this season, so they’re ready for the kind of athletes they’ll see from PLU. The Lutes are tested as well, and need to win for playoff inclusion (even though Menlo is non-D-III, the at-large bids are so competitive, each team needs everything it can get), so perhaps this is a terrible pick. But what’d you want me to do, suggest Mississippi College would win at No. UMHB? Suggest 0-9 McDaniel would pick off No. 21 Johns Hopkins? I guess I could have picked No. 11 Salisbury to loaf, with playoff spot now in hand, against Regents Cup rival Frostburg State. My bad.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: Pomona-Pitzer/Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
Both of these teams can’t end the season winless. *Somebody* has to go home happy on Saturday. The Sagehens are riding an unflattering 18-game skid, so I could venture a guess as to which team will come out on top. But if ever there were a time to break the streak, this is it.
Pat’s take: St. Norbert. After a couple of years on the sidelines, St. Norbert is again playing a part in the Midwest Conference race. They could take Lake Forest down on Saturday, but if not, they were here in the end, which is something that would have been difficult to imagine after the opener against John Carroll.
Keith’s take: Louisiana College. Here’s a team I consider in the nation’s top 15, whose playoff hopes are on life support because Pool C is loaded with teams which grade out slightly better on the criteria than the Wildcats. As my eighth team in for seven spots when I ran a quick projection earlier in the week, LC’s hopes are very much alive. I know for a fact the selection committee members are curious about the game against Hardin-Simmons, which brings the nation’s No. 2 total offense (556.56 yards/game) and No. 234 defense (493 yards/game) to Pineville. Here’s the deal: The pressure is on, as it will be in the playoffs, so LC’s start a week early. A win with spotlight on, against this offense, is worth a win over a regionally ranked opponent, plus an SoS boost, which could help the Wildcats get in. They need just one thing to break right — a loss by one of the CCIW leaders, or a result in the NCAC that gives Wittenberg or Ohio Wesleyan the AQ, an Adrian win at Huntingdon — but more than anything, they need to beat the Cowboys, or there’ll be no one to blame but themselves.

Rivalry game you’re most interested in (alma maters excluded).
Ryan’s take: Mount St. Joseph at Thomas More.
Remember the last time these two Bridge Bowl opponents met without one of them prepping for the postseason? Me neither. This is where the rivalry lives on the best, in the games in which each team is laying it all out on the field and playing with absolutely nothing to lose. MSJ is 4-5; TMC is 6-3. This is just such a game – the final hurrah for the seniors on both sidelines.
Pat’s take: Union at RPI. This snuck up on me because I wasn’t aware that the Dutchman Shoes game had been moved back to Week 11, which is where it belongs. A rivalry game just isn’t the same in Week 9, where it had been stuck for a while, or Week 6, where it was played a decade ago. For me, this rivalry game is most interesting because I want to see if RPI can continue the success it has had this season. And that success is surprising to me, considering the amount of turmoil the program has been through, including a four-head-coaches-in-15-months span. By the way, of this group, I’m the only one that doesn’t have an alma mater/rivalry game to worry about anymore. ::shakes fist:: Curse you, Georgetown!
Keith’s take: Hanover at Franklin. I had a similar thought about Union-RPI, and I’m glad it, the Bronze Turkey and the NESCAC rivalry games all fall on Week 11. Mostly though, the rivalry games this year are a bit out of the national spotlight. Trinity (Conn.) going for a perfect season against a better-than-usual Wesleyan (5-2) is a big deal, but the Victory Bell game is this year’s biggest. Despite Hanover’s 35-34 loss to Manchester (five straight wins) last week, the Panthers still have a chance to beat their rivals on their home field, win the HCAC and take the conference’s automatic playoff bid. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, have been on a tear since an 0-2 start, and have allowed just 23 points over the past five games. Hanover won 15 of 16 from 1989 to 2004, but Franklin — coached by Mike Leonard, a 1984 Hanover grad — has won seven in a row.

Who will have the least momentum going into the playoffs?
Ryan’s take: The NCAC’s tiebreaker champ.
While so many other teams out there have clarity on how to get their conference’s automatic qualifier, Wittenberg, Ohio Wesleyan and Kenyon (all with one conference loss) have been bogged down by conference criteria that has been interpreted a dozen different ways by those outside of the NCAC brass. It appears that either Witt or Kenyon would get the AQ, but how grueling it must be to not know over these final two weeks whether you control your own fate. (UPDATE: The NCAC office has made public what would happen in the various scenarios)
Pat’s take: Castleton State. If the Spartans make it to the playoffs, and they very well can beat Mount Ida, they’ll get there without their star quarterback, Shane Brozowski, who broke his leg in last week’s win against Husson.
Keith’s take: Johns Hopkins. Great idea for a question, but my issue with it is every answer that makes sense now — North Central, for example — wouldn’t make as much sense after a win on Saturday puts that team into the playoffs. But I can say that the Blue Jays were once a ball rolling down hill, undefeated, in line for a playoff home game and a second consecutive 10-0 regular season before Franklin & Marshall spoiled it last week. Rebounding to beat McDaniel will clinch the Centennial Conference, and it’s plenty to pump up the players to push hard in Week 10. But it’s also going to be light years away from the type of challenge the Blue Jays get in the first round — against a Salisbury, maybe, or at home against Washington & Lee, as in Pat’s most recent projection. I think I’d rather be going into the playoffs having played my best game against my conference’s best team rather than this.

Which team can alter its fortunes the most?
Ryan’s take: No. 13 Heidelberg.
For a team that played Mount Union better than any other this year, Heidelberg could give itself a lot of drive (and maybe a good seeding) heading into postseason if they are able to knock off formerly ranked Baldwin Wallace.
Pat’s take: Adrian. With a win at Huntingdon on Saturday, the Bulldogs, already in as the MIAA champ, could potentially play themselves as high as a possible home game, or at least a winnable road game in the first round of the playoffs. With a loss, the Bulldogs could well find themselves on the short road to Alliance, Ohio, and a date with Mount Union. They will need to be at their most motivated, too, to go down to Alabama and beat a team that is playing for its playoff life. Huntingdon needs this win to get in, but I’d say Adrian needs the win in order to extend its reasonable playoff life.
Keith’s take: St. Olaf. Mostly an afterthought in this week’s playoff chatter, the Oles, with a win at 9-0 St. Thomas, would have closed the season with consecutive victories against regionally ranked opponents, be 8-2 and have an SoS that would get them in the discussion (.515 but bound to rise). So why is nobody talking about the Oles? Well, they allow 211 rushing yards per game, and the Tommies rush for 239 per, for starters. Upsetting the No. 4 Tommies would probably take a combination of great Oles play and lackluster effort from St. Thomas, which makes sense if you think the Tommies are content with just being in the postseason, but not if you believe they’d rather play in December in Minnesota instead of Oregon, Ohio or Texas.

ATN Podcast: Whirlwind weekends

Keith McMillan and Pat Coleman each picked up some frequent flyer miles and logged hundreds of miles behind the wheel in search of new Division III football frontiers, with Keith finding his in Western New York and Pat bumming around Southern California.

Not that either had time to breathe, taking in about 18 total quarters of football between the two of them this weekend. The gurus evaluate their trip, talk about where they saw good game-day atmospheres and more (you know, on the rest of the games) in this week’s Around the Nation podcast.

Click the play button below to listen.

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