Phew, that was ugly. UG-ly, with a capital U. And a G. In this case, we’re talking about most of the first round of the playoffs we have a coach talking about winning ugly, and another talking about the worst conditions he’s seen for football in 37 years of coaching. Oh, and there was like one good game, so we’ll take about that. But Pat and Keith talk about the flurry of activity in the first round and breeze into the second, 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. Photo by Jim Rosvold, d3photography.com
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Some weeks stand out because of stadium-filling rivalries and top-25 games that attract interest across the nation. This isn’t one of those weeks.
That, however, opens the door for the middle class of Division III to get some shine, and some air time. There are plenty of teams who aren’t top-ranked but are pretty good. At this time of year, there are 5-0 and 6-0 teams that might end up with three or four losses, and there are 3-2 and 4-1 teams that might not lose another game. Weeks like these are when teams begin to sort one another out.
Beyond the particular team and conference you follow, it can be tough to know where to look in a week like this. That’s where Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I come in. We’ll help you sort through the 117 games on tap this weekend, all but three involving two D-III teams. So with 231 of the 247 teams in action, check out the seven-point primers below for where to watch for great games, big upsets, and teams that will get their first wins or losses.
— Keith McMillan
Game of the week
Keith’s take: Gustavus Adolphus at No. 14 St. John’s. As my colleagues’ choices will prove, there’s no marquee game this week featuring a clash of top-25 teams. But there is this, the 6-0 Gusties traveling to Collegeville, Minn. with a former Johnnie as their star under center. Mitch Hendricks is the only quarterback in D-III to have surpassed 2,000 yards passing so far this season, and he has 23 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. The Gusties convert third downs at the nation’s highest rate (66.2) and score 54.5 points per game, but none of it means much if they lose to St. John’s, Bethel, Concordia-Moorhead and St. Thomas like they did to finish last season. The Johnnies, led by linebackers Carter Hanson and Drake Matuska, have been solid defensively, and the offense, behind RB Sam Sura and QB Nick Martin, takes care of the ball, so the Gusties will have to earn it. The Johnnies, who won 29-19 at Gustavus last season, are also coming in off a bye week. Frankly, this game could fit in “unbeaten team that takes its first loss” or “most likely top-25 team to lose” below, which makes it a perfect Game of the Week candidate.
Ryan’s take: Hendrix at Berry. I’m going off the top-25 map to pick this game, but with as wide open as the SAA is this season, this matchup between third-year programs will help to sort out the field. So far this season, two SAA teams have been ranked, and Hendrix and Berry have each knocked off one of those more-established teams. Is the student becoming the master? The Warriors have a combination running/passing game that yields a lot of points; the Vikings, on the other hand, haven’t allowed more than 17 points since Week 1. Each team will really need to tap into those strengths if it hopes to emerge the winner — and be the top dog in the conference race.
Pat’s take: Carleton at St. Olaf. Nationally this is an underrated rivalry. As Minnesota rivalries goes, it will never match the Tommie-Johnnie game in terms of pure size and scope, but these two colleges nestled in small-town Northfield, Minn., have a fierce rivalry as well. It’s also pretty evenly matched. As St. Olaf has struggled the past couple of years, Carleton has been able to get its licks in and the games have been competitive in either direction. But lastly, it’s one of my favorite rivalries because it has one of my favorite traditions: The Walk. The winning team walks down to the middle of town and turns the eagle on top of the town’s war memorial to face the winner’s campus. Pretty cool sight.
Surprisingly close game
Keith’s take: Central at Loras. The Dutch have won three of four and are known, alongside Wartburg, as the perennial class of the IIAC. The Duhawks (2-3) have not won a conference title since rejoining in 1986, and were picked to finish last back in Kickoff ’15. But when the games got underway, we learned something about Loras: Its offense can wing it. The Duhawks lead the nation in passing offense (430 yards/game) and are top five in total offense. Because they are No. 229 overall in total defense, they’ve had scores of 56-52, 52-42, 48-41 and 30-27 … which you might notice are all relatively close games. Expect another one.
Ryan’s take: Washington and Lee at Randolph-Macon. Even when the Yellow Jackets are struggling, their struggles are often tied to losses against teams that air out the ball. W&L is not one of those teams. Macon knows how to stop the run — even the option run — and while these two teams are polar opposites in the standings, they’ll be close on the scoreboard.
Pat’s take: Mount St. Joseph at Franklin. Franklin has been putting up a ton of points of late, although the 56 points vs. Anderson and the 80 vs. Earlham don’t really compare to what they might put up against their biggest competition for the conference title. However, MSJ has given up a few more points than usual.
Most likely top-25 team to be upset
Keith’s take: No. 20 Illinois Wesleyan. After back-to-back weeks in which six top-25 teams lost, the pickings are slim this week. There are some decent opponents for the elite teams, like 4-1 Kean facing No. 4 Wesley and 3-2 UW-Stevens Point facing No. 5 UW-Oshkosh. I don’t even particularly like my pick, because the Titans are good defensively (No. 18 nationally) as they often are and are deserving of their top-25 spot. This is more a compliment to 2-3 Augustana, which played its first four games under Steve Bell closely before a 31-14 loss to seventh-ranked Wheaton last week. The Vikings’ hopes ride heavily on QB Sam Frasco, who is running it 17 times a game himself while averaging 33 passes.
Ryan’s take: No. 24 Ithaca. After a couple of weeks in which we’ve seen several in the top 25 fall, this Saturday is looking a lot more like chalk. And then there’s the anything-can-happen Empire 8. Brockport is only 1-2 in conference play, but those losses come at a combined four points. There’s no reason to believe that the Golden Eagles won’t push Ithaca to the bone in this one.
Pat’s take: No. 19 Concordia-Moorhead. Like Ryan, I see a lot of chalk this week. I’m kind of stretching to find someone other than Ithaca to point to here so I’m going to take a flier on the possibility that Augsburg might be able to go up to Concordia-Moorhead and come out with a win. The Auggies still have incredible talent Ayrton Scott at quarterback and he’s a handful for any opposing defense.
There are 27 unbeaten teams. Pick one to lose for the first time.
Keith’s take: Denison, at Wittenberg. I gave Gettysburg and Gustavus Adolphus a look in this category, but the 5-0 and 3-2 records in this Ohio night game are deceiving. The Big Red survived a two-point conversion attempt with 44 seconds left in a 10-9 win against Ohio Wesleyan (a team Wittenberg beat, 42-21) two games ago, while the Tigers’ two losses were on the road to Wabash and DePauw, who are both unbeaten. Denison has the ninth-ranked defense in the country, but Wittenberg QB Zach Jenkins and WR Corey Stump should put a dent in that ranking. I’m not going that far out on a limb here, since the Big Red haven’t beaten Wittenberg since 1989, and haven’t won in Springfield since 1952, long before their mascot (see No. 9 in ‘100 things we love about Denison’) was something other than Big Red.
Ryan’s take: St. Norbert, at Ripon. The Midwest is a tricky beast this season, and St. Norbert is the only team in either division that is currently unbeaten. I know I picked Ripon for a Triple Take category just last week, and the Red Hawks proved me right. I’ll take them again, this time to dole out the upset against the Green Knights.
Pat’s take: Gettysburg, vs. Muhlenberg. This particular Battle of the Burgs is a little bit turned on its head from recent years, with Gettysburg (5-0) coming in riding high and Muhlenberg sporting two losses. But the Mules’ two losses are to Centennial teams that Gettysburg hasn’t even played yet: Johns Hopkins and F&M. The records for each are a little misleading and this game is more evenly matched than the conference standings would suggest, primarily because Gettysburg’s 4-0 conference mark has come at the hands of the four teams at the bottom of the conference standings.
There are 26 winless teams. Pick one to win for the first time.
Keith’s take: Worcester State, at Mass-Dartmouth. I was tempted to take 0-4 Pacific Lutheran at 5-0 Whitworth, but if you look closely at the Lancers, they’ve been tied or within one score in the fourth quarter of three of their five losses. It’s a Friday night game in North Dartmouth, where the 3-3 Corsairs are coming off a pair of losses and might be thinking the 0-5 Lancers are an easy win and way to get back over .500.
Ryan’s take:Hanover, vs. Anderson. Neither team has looked pretty this year — the margins of their losses edge into the realm of the absurd at times. But Hanover’s best game this season came last week against Mount St. Joseph, which was close for almost the entire 60 minutes. If the Panthers can carry that momentum into this Saturday’s game (and do a lot better than giving away four turnovers), it will be able to erase the goose egg from the win column.
Pat’s take: UW-Eau Claire, vs. UW-Stout. The Blugolds’ best chance to get a win this season comes on Saturday night when they host their archrival UW-Stout. The Blue Devils will be making a 24-mile trip east on I-94 to Eau Claire, Wis., where they will be favored, no doubt. But Eau Claire has to get this one, or the next week’s game at La Crosse, in order to keep our Kickoff projection from coming true. The Blugolds finish at UW-Whitewater, home to UW-Platteville, and at UW-Oshkosh.
Pick a player you think will play a large role in leading his team to victory.
Keith’s take: Utica kicker Thomas Woodburn. Yeah, I said it. A kicker is going to sway a game. Woodburn, coming off a 5-for-5 week in field-goal kicking against Brockport State and who is 16 of 17 on the season, is needed more than most place kickers. He’s attempted at least two field goals in five of six games. (Only one of the field goals is longer than 37 yards, which says something about where the Pioneers’ offense tends to stall.) Since Week 2, Woodburn has handled the punting in addition to PATs, field goals and kickoffs. And a team that has played three straight overtime games and four one-score games needs an accurate leg on its side. But beyond all that, in a nine-team Empire 8 in which any team legitimately could beat any of the others, Utica needs Woodburn. The Pioneers, at 4-2, 3-1, are tied with Cortland State for the conference lead and could be playoff-bound for the first time in the 15-year history of the program. St. John Fisher, after a rough start, has won two of its past three against Empire 8 teams and might be able to push Utica to a fourth consecutive overtime game.
Ryan’s take: Albion quarterback Dominic Bona and running back Mike Czarnecki, vs. Adrian. The Britons are a team I’ve been eyeing especially closely this season, and in recent weeks, I’ve gotten a handful of e-mails from fans talking about this Saturday’s matchup. Adrian is one of the bigger conference threats to Albion, and last year, the Bulldogs ruined Albion’s momentum in a big way. This season is different: Bona averages 276 passing yards a game, and Czarnecki is at 156 rushing yards a game — and he’s not even the team’s only 100-yard-plus rusher! (Fellow senior Colin Parks is the other.) If you listened to the ATN podcast this week, you know that these Albion players have thoughts of the playoffs growing in their minds. They’re halfway there.
Pat’s take: North Park quarterback T.D. Conway vs. Elmhurst. Conway struggled last week vs. North Central but has been pretty strong against the rest of the schedule. North Park has played four really good teams this year, three ranked in the top 25. Facing an Elmhurst team which is not quite on the level of Wheaton or North Central should allow Conway to shine. Plus, with Elmhurst running back Josh Williams not at full strength, there will be more opportunities for the Vikings to live up to the other half of this question, namely, winning the game.
They’ll be on your radar
Keith’s take: Trinity (Texas). The Tigers are 4-1 but outside the top 25 because of a 24-point loss to No. 15 Hardin-Simmons. Trinity plays four of its next five against Austin and Southwestern, but the Kangaroos, Saturday’s opponent, are 3-2. Trinity probably won’t be able to earn top-25 consideration until the Oct. 31 game against Texas Lutheran, but we are watching.
Ryan’s take: Denison. For all of the talk in the NCAC about Wabash, Wittenberg and, more recently, DePauw, there’s one more team that’s fighting for some recognition: Denison. The Big Red line up against damaged-giant Wittenberg on Saturday. Last year’s game was only a seven-point win by Witt, and that was when Denison was having a down season and Witt was having a good one. I’m interested to see where the winds are shifting now that the Big Red are riding a hot streak.
Pat’s take: St. Scholastica at Northwestern (Minn.). I won’t be able to attend this game, unfortunately — I had hoped to do so. But the winner of the game is firmly in the driver’s seat in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, with a chance to run the table in conference play. Should be a great night for a game, and a very competitive one as well.
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.
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.
Hit play, or subscribe to get this podcast on your mobile device.