So let’s make something clear from jump. Give or take a Hardin-Simmons, Wheaton, St. John’s or Johns Hopkins, we’re down to the eight best teams in the country. They’re all elite, and it’s hard to find fault with any of them. But only four will advance, and as your trusty Triple Take panel, we’ve got to choose between the best of the best.
If Round 1 games were speed bumps on the “road” to Salem, and Round 2 was, say, a DUI checkpoint, the quarterfinals are like driving through Snoqualmie Pass in winter. This round is exponentially more difficult to get through than the last. What we love about it is that the eight programs in it are historically successful, but also pretty loaded this year. Gone should be the 49-0 and 55-23 scores of the early rounds, although as you’ll see, we’re not expecting every game to come down to the final possession.
This is no longer a matter of want-to. Each of the eight teams dreams of being the group in Salem hoisting the walnut and bronze trophy; only one will finish the job. This is when history is made, and for the rest of us, hot diggity … we get to kick back and watch.
Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I make our picks below. Please add your picks and insights in the comments section. On Monday’s podcast, Pat and I will revisit the weekend, including the surprise winners and those who stood out.
— Keith McMillan
|Our Triple Take Crew:
Wabash (12-0) at St. Thomas (12-0), noon CT
Keith: St. Thomas 24, Wabash 13
In an era of four wides and run-pass option plays, the Tommies and Little Giants present a stylistic slugfest. Sure, they’ll give multiple formations and run misdirection plays too, but each has a foundation built around a bruising running back and his line, and a suffocating defense. The issues I forsee for Wabash, though, are twofold. One is slow starts; It’s cool to say you always fight, but maybe start punching in the first round. The Little Giants trailed Albion, 14-6, and Thomas More, 27-13, in the third quarters of their first two playoff wins. Wabash doesn’t need me to tell it that it can’t count on coming from behind this week, not against a St. Thomas defense who let a team cross the 14-point barrier for the first time last week in a 38-19 win over St. John’s. It doesn’t need me to point out that the Tommies (plus-9 in turnover margin) have only 17 giveaways in 12 games, and six turnovers won’t fly this week. The second issue is sheer size. The Tommies average 306 pounds across the offensive line, with 6-foot, 222-pound Jordan Roberts carrying the rock behind it. That’s almost the exact size at which Wabash RB Mason Zurek is listed, and his line averages a not-too-shabby 283. So if Wabash can go blow-for-blow and keep alive a chance for another Always-Fights finish, I hope its junior linebacker Connor Ludwig who makes the play. Ethan Buresh scooped-and-scored his way into Division III lore with the game-ending runback at the end of the Thomas More overtime, but if you watch the Play of the Week closely, Ludwig could have snagged it and been the hero. Unselfishly, he let Buresh scoop it and led the convoy, in a true team-player moment.
Ryan: St. Thomas 31, Wabash 17
I started the season with the Little Giants ranked No. 9 on my Top 25 ballot; St. Thomas was No. 17. Notable in those positions isn’t just how much better St. Thomas has turned out to be but also the fact that that is easily the highest I’ve ever positioned Wabash in the preseason. I even noted in the surprises/disappointments Around the Nation column a couple of weeks ago that in 20 years of watching Wabash play, this group is special — the determination, the aggressive defense, the potent offensive balance. Even early on, it all pointed to a season to get the LGs to where they are now. The question is whether it can get them even further, and that’s where I’m wavering. By my definition, this Wabash group is elite, joined by many of the others in the Top 10. St. Thomas, on paper (big and heavy paper, that is) is better. Wabash plays a lot like Linfield does, with speed and finesse that compensates for any size deficiencies. St. Thomas seems to not only have the size, but I believe the Tommies also carry it well, which shows in the explosiveness of the offense. UST could be a Stagg Bowl-worthy team, and I do feel they will have to work for that possibility this weekend.
Pat: St. Thomas 28, Wabash 20
These are two very similar teams. St. Thomas larger. Faster? No idea, hard to tell on tape. Better tested? Probably in the regular season, maybe not in the postseason. As expected for this time of year, each team is coming off the game in which it gave up the most points and had the closest game it had all season. A lot has been asked of the primary running back for each team lately, with St. Thomas’ Jordan Roberts going for 30-plus carries four times in the past six weeks. And the past two weeks he hasn’t even managed four yards per carry, so that’s something to keep an eye on. Mason Zurek is coming off back-to-back-to-back weeks of 37, 39 and 35 and while he didn’t have the nine yards per carry last week he did in his two prior games, he did still manage 5.2 yards per carry. Line play will be huge, to be sure. Weather should not be an issue, in fact, it looks like the best possible Dec. 5 we could possibly have in St. Paul. No reason not to expect another close games: Tommies, fans, be sure not to squint out there and mistake the Little Giants for the Johnnies. I expect a one-score game.
Mary Hardin-Baylor (11-1) at Linfield (11-0), noon PT
Keith: Mary Hardin-Baylor 35, Linfield 34
I have to stick with my pick from Surprises and Disappointments, and the injuries for Linfield keep me from feeling like I’m taking a total shot in the dark. I’ve previously laid out the case for symmetry; last year I couldn’t have been more convinced that UMHB was the better team, with it hosting and Linfield having a regular-season loss, and the Wildcats went to Belton and pulled the upset. So this year, Linfield is unbeaten and hosting, and UMHB is the one with the loss and the spottier playoff games to date. You can see UMHB struggle a bit for yourself, since the Huntingdon Stretch Internet portal has the game available on demand still. So you might also be able to see the ridiculous athleticism of its defensive line, or that the Cru, long known for its commitment to the run, makes better use of its wide receiver talent. The Cru also stopped flip-flopping quarterbacks and let Zach Anderson handle almost all of the work last week, and the senior passed for 293 yards. UMHB, which generated a very good 35 turnovers this season, is the kind of team who could get blown out at Linfield, or could hang close for a while and then get so hot for a quarter or two that they pull the upset. Linfield’s got a history of failing in big games when the team had Stagg Bowl talent, and keeping alive a potential matchup of the only purple powers we have yet to see face off, Linfield and Mount Union, would be a treat for D-III fans. The Wildcats are also accustomed to overcoming adversity, and with a QB injury and the death of broadcaster Bill Johnson this week, they’re doing that again. I foresee a shootout worthy of these two teams’ storied histories, but I’ve been way wrong before.
Ryan: Linfield 28, Mary Hardin-Baylor 27
The starter or the backup, that is the riddle … With quarterback Sam Riddle in the game, I wouldn’t have hesitated to pull the trigger on Linfield. However, I don’t know the status of his injury, which left him on crutches for a time last week. Tom Knecht is a highly capable backup who would be the clear starter at many other schools, so the Wildcats won’t see a detrimental drop in their offensive momentum. But the challenge is bigger now than it otherwise would have been. I didn’t have to read the Road to Salem feature this week to know that UMHB is out to avenge last year’s loss. In fact, Linfield is one of the few teams that have ever beaten the Cru in the postseason, so there are unique undertones to this game. Both teams are their dominant selves on both sides of the ball, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like a turnover or a special teams play to really break this one open.
Pat: Linfield 20, Mary Hardin-Baylor 17
I’ve been working under the assumption all week that Sam Riddle will not play Saturday, or at least, will not start. But his absence will be noticed. Tom Knecht is a quality quarterback and he might indeed get the Wildcats to the quarterfinals. Linfield has been my pick to win it all since August, so I’m not going to deviate now, although that pick was certainly predicated on having one of the best quarterbacks at this level under center. This game is going to have to be won defensively, for both sides are going to be stronger on that side of the ball on Saturday. Knecht can run, and obviously the Cru’s Zach Anderson can as well. But can Knecht do so vs. Teidrick Smith and Jon Isom and Haston Adams? Can Anderson do it vs. Alex Hoff and Jake Reimer and the rest of the Wildcat defense? That’s why I think this is a tight game. (And after pasting this into the file, I see I’m not alone.)
Wesley (11-1) at Mount Union (12-0), noon ET
Keith: Mount Union 45, Wesley 21
People close to the Wolverines program don’t believe this defense is as good as last season’s, and that one gave up 70 at Mount Union in the semifinals. The chance for Wesley is that Joe Callahan has a game in Alliance more like the 633-yard one from 2013, and with James Okike (and Alex Kemp, Bryce Shade, Jamar Baynard, Kyle George et. al.) on the other end, it’s possible. Only two teams have managed to keep the Wolverines’ offense in the 30s this season, but the Purple Raiders have the nation’s best defense. Mount Union’s offense doesn’t have all-everything QB Kevin Burke this time around, and they haven’t played anyone who’s been as successful as the Wolverines. Still, it would take an uncharacteristically mistake-free game from Wesley to get it done, since Mount Union is plus-17 in turnovers with only six giveaways this season. The Wolverines are plus-three, and Callahan had three giveaways in the first half last week. Mount Union has a relentless defensive line, and Wesley will counter that by having Callahan get rid of the ball quickly and creatively. But even if all goes well on offense, it goes back to how I led this pick off. Wesley is going to have to play a great game defensively as well, and that might be where it ends up overmatched.
Ryan: Mount Union 45, Wesley 17
I saw the meeting between these two teams last fall, and while I know that each season is unique, it’s hard to unsee something like that. Week after week, Mount has rolled through its games and looks no less awesome than it has for the past umpteen years. Wesley, on the other hand, has had me on edge a few times, letting opponents find the end zone a few too many times this season. I don’t think the Wolverines are as polished as in some of the more recent seasons. Mount Union is stacked with playmakers, particularly on defense: Jones, Kocheff, Spencer, Furda, just to name a few. These guys were studs last year and the year prior, and now they’re hardened seniors who won’t be having any of what Callahan & Co. are dishing out.
Pat: Mount Union 56, Wesley 28
Wesley has played Mount Union well twice. I don’t expect this to be the third one. The Wolverines will score points — I know the number I’ve predicted above is more than the Purple Raiders have given up in any game this year and that’s not an accident. And they won’t all come after Mount Union goes up 56-0, unlike last year where Mount Union scored the first 70 and Wesley scored the last 21. Joe Callahan and Co. will get some points. It just won’t be nearly enough, not even enough to push the Mount Union defense or even make it necessary for the starters to play the whole game. Meanwhile, Mount Union should be able to score at will considering that Wesley has allowed other teams to put up points as well.
UW-Whitewater (11-1) at UW-Oshkosh (12-0), noon CT
Keith: UW-Whitewater 24, UW-Oshkosh 21
This pick gives me plenty of pause, because the Titans have allowed only seven points in the past three games, and because it seems to have the makings of a special offense as well. But I’m also wary of reading too much into the 10-7 mid-October win, where some unlikely-to-be-replicated occurrences helped the Titans beats the Warhawks. UW-Oshkosh fumbled five times in that game and recovered them all. The Titans blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt with 1:59 left. They also limited UW-Whitewater to a not-fluky 76 rushing yards on 32 carries. Look, I get that these teams have grown since then, and no rematch would be played with the same strategy as the first. But I can’t shake the feeling that but for a few plays, we’d all still see UW-Whitewater as the No. 1-ranked defending champion. The home-field advantage here is negligble, as is the element of surprise, which can be a big deal in the postseason. UW-Whitewater seems to have gotten its offense on track since that midseason game, with QB Chris Nelson being efficient and RB Jordan Ratliffe carrying 38 times in last week’s win at Wheaton. So I’ll go with the champs, who have been tested on the road, have the big-game experience and have the confidence, until someone knocks them off when it counts.
Ryan: UW-Oshkosh 28, UW-Whitewater 20
Considering that this is the one game of the bunch in which the teams have actually already played each other this season, it’s surprisingly hard to peg how this one will turn out. I was slow to get on the Oshkosh wagon, but I’m now firmly buckled in for a ride that could last a couple of more weeks. We’ll certainly see the intensity we saw the first time around, but I don’t think we’ll see the same kind of defensive battle as then. There will be touchdowns (yes, plural) by each team, but there will also be reason to tune into this game online. Whitewater has found its footing the last several weeks and seems to consistently be the kind of team that toppled Morningside earlier this year (Morningside ended the regular season No. 1 in the NAIA). It’s almost startling to think about Whitewater bowing out of the playoffs this early, but that’s what will happen after lining up again against the Titans.
Pat: UW-Whitewater 21, UW-Oshkosh 17
It’s tough to take a lot of guidance from the first meeting between these teams. Chris Nelson was still finding himself at quarterback for the Warhawks, while Brett Kasper only played a little more than a quarter for the Titans. Whitewater threw a ton of short passes in the first meeting, while since then, Marcus Hudson has emerged as a threat. He’d only had five catches all year before the Oshkosh game. Defensively, Oshkosh has been fantastic, allowing just 32 points the past five weeks, and they didn’t allow a single play of 20 yards or more to Whitewater last time around. But I have a feeling that we’re headed for a split of the season series here. I saw a few things in Whitewater last week that made me think they can get to the semifinals. They didn’t quite look full Two-Time Defending Champs but they were damn good. So if Tony Gumina can hang onto the ball (and Jordan Ratliffe, for that matter), this goes UWW’s way. (Ed note: This is the first time all postseason that Pat and Ryan have disagreed on a pick.)
We invite you to add your predictions in the comments below, or tweet at us at @D3Keith, @NewsTipps and @d3football. Download the Around the Nation podcast on Mondays, where Pat and Keith review the picks and the highlights from Round 1.