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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.

Around the Nation Podcast: On the clinchers

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Sam Sura had a busy day, carrying 40 times for 119 yards for St. John’s in the Johnnies’ win vs. Bethel. (St. John’s photo by Richard Larkin McLay)

The playoff picture began to take shape this week, as 14 of the 24 automatic bids were claimed. Pat and Keith talk through the teams who are in, who has yet to clinch and who might be in line for the Pool B bids.

Meanwhile, did Wabash and St. John Fisher move onto the bubble or all the way off of it? What are Centre’s chances like if they pick up a loss next week? Keith and Pat discuss the upsets, the near-upsets and much more in this week’s Around the Nation Podcast.

Plus they hand out their game balls, look at teams on the rise, under-the-radar highlights, key stats and more.

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

You can subscribe to the Around the Nation Podcast in iTunes. You can also get this and any of our future Around the Nation podcasts automatically by subscribing to this RSS feed: http://www.d3blogs.com/d3football/?feed=podcast

Plus, all the highlights and interviews from around Division III in the postgame show:

Triple Take predictions, Week 10: This is almost it!

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Tyler Holmes and Wabash will try to keep the unbeaten run alive. (Wabash photo by Howard Hewitt)

Week 10. This is almost it.

For a handful of teams, this is it — their season will be over by Saturday evening. For another handful, this is it in the sense that the game that defines the season is this week. And for a few more, this is almost it — there’s one more shot next week, whether that shot is to score a win that influences the playoff selection committee, or just to head into the offseason on a high note.

With regional rankings out and selection Sunday nine days from now, Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I focus on the top end of Division III in this week’s predictions, as a field of 32 will be chosen from the 230 or so that are playoff-eligible. Here are our predictions.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week
Keith’s take: Ithaca at No. 15 St. John Fisher. The clashes at the top of the MIAC and NCAC are bigger games, but we have a Wabash grad and Minnesota resident here more qualified to handle those. We might overdo the Empire 8 in Triple Take every week, yet this one is huge because it’s the difference between winning the conference and possibly a couple playoff games, as E8 winners have been known to do, and missing the field entirely. Salisbury game aside, the Cardinals have been pretty solid in total defense (275 yards/game, 25th nationally). Ithaca (294/34th) isn’t far behind, and after allowing 38 points to Frostburg State, have allowed just three TDs in two games. To top it off, the past three Bombers-Cardinals clashes have been decided by three, four and three points.
Ryan’s take: No. 9 Wabash at No. 14 Wittenberg. As a Wabash grad, I feel no pressure to *have* to pick this game; fact is, I *want* to pick it. Not only is this one of the two top-25 clashes this weekend, but it also features two teams that have grown into the fiercest of rivals when it comes to talking about the NCAC. Only once since 2004 has a team not named Wabash or Wittenberg won the conference title, and even that was a co-champion situation in which Witt still got the automatic qualifier. The Little Giants and Tigers are at the top of most major statistical categories in the conference, including scoring offense and scoring defense. Makes you wonder what kind of game we’re in for this weekend, huh?
Pat’s take: No. 10 Bethel at No. 18 St. John’s. The first time I saw these teams play was on another cold Week 10 Saturday, 11 years ago when St. John’s coach John Gagliardi came in with 408 career wins and needed one more to surpass legendary Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson to become the winningest coach in college football history. I don’t expect to see (or be) a member of the national media at this game, nor 14,000 people, but it still has the makings of a classic. The primary question in my mind is how well Bethel’s defense will contain St. John’s running back Sam Sura, and whether the Johnnies will continue to rip a page from the 2003 playbook and put their best receiver in the backfield in a big game. (I mean, if they’re going to throw the ball around 10 times per game, what else does Josh Bungum have to do?)

Surprisingly close game
Keith’s take: No. 13 Widener at King’s. For a 3-5 team, the Monarchs have pulled off some amazing feats, like managing to play both No. 19 Delaware Valley (24-21 loss last week) and 1-7 Misericordia (36-29 win) even. Three of King’s losses are by a touchdown or less, and they lost by two scores to Lycoming. All that bodes well for another game where they hang close to a superior team. Turnovers are even more key here than usual — Widener has just six giveaways all season, and King’s has 10.
Ryan’s take: Case Western Reserve at Thomas More. The newcomer vs. a PAC power. Case hasn’t been playing particularly well this season, but one bright spot is that they can handle an opponent’s run game reasonably well. That might not translate into a win against TMC, but it should keep the score somewhat in check.
Pat’s take: No. 25 Willamette at Pacific. Mostly because I don’t know what to do with this game and it should be mentioned. Willamette has to be favored, even though Pacific is in first place in the Northwest Conference at the moment. But Pacific needed overtime to beat Lewis and Clark last week and hasn’t played Linfield yet, so being in first place is cool for the program, but a little misleading at the moment.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset
Keith’s take: No. 7 Hobart. The discrepancy between the Statesmen’s No. 7 ranking and St. Lawrence’s two votes is the biggest in this week’s conference-title toss-ups. If it weren’t for the Saints’ puzzling 10-7 loss to Norwich early in the season, we’d be billing this as a matchup of 8-0 teams. But what makes the potential for upset here real is that both teams are equally adept at the rare skill of good defense. Hobart has held five opponents to 13 points or fewer, and the three times a team has gone over, it’s needed to get there with a TD in the final minute after the outcome has been decided. St. Lawrence, meantime, is sixth nationally in total defense (219 yards/game, 10 TDs allowed), just ahead of No. 10 Hobart (234/11), and neither team has more than nine turnovers this season. To pull the upset, Mike Lefflbine and the Saints’ offense will have to figure out how to score on Hobart, which might not be likely, but it’s more possible than the disparate rankings might make it seem.
Ryan’s take: No. 7 Hobart. St. Lawrence hasn’t been squeaking by most teams on the schedule; instead the Saints have been leaving few questions about who’s the best team on the field each week. SLU allows just 11 points a game — a mere 0.1 better than Hobart’s average in that category — and should be able to use its pass-leaning offense to keep the Statesmen on their toes. The winner of this will most likely end up being the Liberty League’s playoff representative. (Of course, if SLU wins, perhaps the LL would send two teams?)
Pat’s take: No. 21 Chapman. At some point we may well see Chapman take over the top dog spot in the SCIAC, possibly this year. But it’s easier to believe the previous champion will hang on to its throne, perhaps for one extra season.

Pinpoint a game that will decide a conference race this weekend
Keith’s take: No. 21 Chapman at Redlands, SCIAC. If Chapman wins, the conference would be wrapped up with a tidy bow. Redlands, however, can delay the crowning another week, because next week’s opponent, Occidental, isn’t eliminated yet, despite a 59-21 loss to Chapman in October. Redlands has been off the national radar since being outscored 72-3 in season-opening losses to No. 2 UMHB and No. 11 Linfield, which beat Chapman 21-14. The Panthers, who run for 253 yards a game and pass for 211, could lose and still end up winning the tiebreaker (Rose Bowl rule?) anyway. They could bypass the complications with a win.
Ryan’s take: Franklin at Defiance, HCAC. After misreading the schedule last week, I feel obligated to renew the spotlight I put on this game. The Grizzlies are undefeated in conference play and hold tiebreakers over every one- and two-loss team in the HCAC. Not that it will come to that. A win this weekend means that Franklin is in the playoffs no matter what happens elsewhere in the conference. Consider the conference decided.
Pat’s take: Illinois Wesleyan at Wheaton (Ill.), CCIW. This isn’t a winner-take-all game and probably won’t be much of a battle. But with a win, Wheaton will pick up its ninth victory for the first time since 2010 and clinch its first playoff bid since then as well. Illinois Wesleyan has struggled to find a quarterback this season, and Wheaton appears to have found its signal-caller.

Pinpoint a conference race that will not be decided this weekend
Keith’s take: ODAC. Guilford must win at Hampden-Sydney this week and Emory & Henry next weekend to win the conference title. The Quakers, who lost 47-31 to Shenandoah a few weeks ago, are no more likely to get it done than the Tigers, who were cruising through the conference before a 34-9 loss to Bridgewater last week. H-SC needs to beat Guilford and rival Randolph-Macon in Week 11 to take the crown, while E&H has home games against Shenandoah and then Guilford, but lost 49-27 to H-SC in October. If it feels like every conference team still is in the mix somehow, well, duh, it’s the ODAC.
Ryan’s take: ECFC. Husson appears in control of the conference, being undefeated and cruising convincingly through most of its games. But the Eagles’ real challenge to their postseason hopes won’t come until Week 11 when they travel to Mount Ida, which has just one conference loss. Both Husson and Mount Ida play 0-8 teams this weekend, so there’s every reason to expect that they’ll remain on track for their final-week collision.
Pat’s take: MWC. We might not even know immediately on conclusion of the games on Saturday who will be playing in the Midwest Conference title game and tiebreakers might be required. In the North Division, if Macalester defeats St. Norbert, they win the division and play for the title next week. If St. Norbert wins and Carroll beats Beloit, then there’s a three-way tie and it comes down to how many quarters each team led. (If St. Norbert wins and leads all four quarters in the process, they play for the automatic bid). In the South Division, Cornell plays Illinois College for a share of the title. If Illinois College wins, it plays for the title. Cornell can  force a tie with a win and Monmouth can make it a three-way tie with a win vs. Knox. (Monmouth has not lost a game to Knox in the history of D3football.com.) Look for teams to take an early lead and keep trying to score.

Predict the outcome of a game outside the playoff picture
Keith’s take: Trinity (Conn.) at Wesleyan. Amherst has already locked up best-team-in-the-NESCAC honors, and is aiming to finish 8-0 by beating 2-5 rival Williams. There’s maybe more intrigue in Tufts going for its fifth win this season at Middlebury, after not winning a game from 2010-13. But the Cardinals got drubbed by their Bantam rivals last season, so that’s all the story line needed for this one. It’s the final game for Wesleyan DB Jake Bussani, the active career leader in interceptions (17) and passes defensed (38), and a big reason why the Cardinals are top-five nationally in pass efficiency defense. The player behind Bussani on the career interceptions list, UW-Whitewater’s Brady Grayvold (16), plays almost as many games in two seasons (30, for the frequent Stagg Bowl participants) as Bussani has had in his four-year career (32). It’s only fitting that he makes one final big play and helps Wesleyan avenge last year’s loss.
Ryan’s take: Kenyon at Wooster. The season really derailed for the Scots midway through October, and the best chance they have at a rebound is this game. It certainly should happen. Yet without a win here, Wooster will almost certainly be riding on fumes when it visits Ohio Wesleyan in the season finale.
Pat’s take: Alfred State at Washington U. Not difficult to predict the Bears will win this game, but I just wanted to bring this game to the radar and give some kudos to Alfred State and Wash. U. for making the most of a bad situation. Both teams got dropped by Maranatha Baptist this season when the Bearcats couldn’t reliably field a football team, but rather than have Alfred State swallow its airfare, they continue to travel this weekend and end up in St. Louis instead of Watertown, Wis. As for Maranatha, there’s a lot of recruiting to do this offseason to get up into the 40s or 50s instead of opening the season with 30 players and dropping to the low 20s.

They’ll be on your radar
Keith’s take: Montclair State. An afterthought coming into the season because it totaled nine wins in 2012 and ’13, wins No. 8 and 9 this season would clinch the NJAC and potentially a winnable first-round home game against a team from New England in Round 1. Before they get that far ahead though, the Red Hawks have to get past 7-2 Morrisville State, which has come close a couple times in recent seasons, but hasn’t beaten Montclair State.
Ryan’s take: Texas Lutheran. The Bulldogs’ placement in the NCAA’s regional rankings compared with Centre have me curious about a 9-1 team getting picked ahead for Pool B over an undefeated team. It’s a bit unexpected, but that makes TLU’s game against a 5-3 Austin this week all that much more crucial.
Pat’s take: UW-Oshkosh. The Titans won’t lose this weekend, and although their strength of schedule will drop, they’ll likely stay in the regional rankings until next week, when they face UW-Platteville.

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.