Around the Nation Podcast: Still many unbeatens

Chicago had its hands full at Bethel on Saturday. (Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com)

Chicago had its hands full at Bethel on Saturday. (Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com)

A few unbeaten but unranked teams had the opportunity to prove themselves against opponents with a little more prestige on Saturday. But in the end, Chicago, Gustavus and Emory & Henry couldn’t get over the hump.

Of course, those losses, and others by UW-Stevens Point and Wesleyan, still leave Division III with nearly two dozen unbeaten teams. That seems like a lot for this time of year, but that’s not too unusual.

We remember what an unpopular decision it was to hire the guy who has won 100 of his first 106 career games as a head coach and talk about who to re-evaluate in the Top 25. Plus, Pat and Keith each give out their game balls, look beyond the obvious games to some underappreciated highlights and much more.

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

Triple Take, Week 7: Approaching a turning point

Shreve Rohle and the Hampden-Sydney defense don't get nearly as much of the spotlight as the Tigers' offense does.

Shreve Rohle and the Hampden-Sydney defense don’t get nearly as much of the spotlight as the Tigers’ offense does.

Past the season’s halfway point, many of us have seen enough to think we know something about this year’s teams. That can lead to griping with the poll results, overconfidence before this weekend’s games and the kinds of surprises that make Saturdays in the fall so much fun.

Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I try to make sense of the several dozen teams in action, as the leaves turn colors and Division III teams reach their turning points.

– Keith McMillan

Game of the week
Keith’s take: No. 22 St. John’s at Gustavus Adolphus. Although the setting in Collegeville, Minn. is more iconic, this is the biggest game in St. Peter in years, with the 6-0 Gusties taking on the 4-1 Johnnies. There’s history between the two, starting with the quarterback, as Pat points out below, and last season’s game, a 23-20 double-overtime Gustavus win. One has to reach back that far, however, to find the Gusties’ last victory against a pretty good team. They’re averaging 46.0 points per game (amazingly only tied for ninth nationally) but their undefeated start has come against teams that are 7-19 so far. The Johnnies game starts a run against teams that are 16-4, and if Gustavus proves it is for real, that makes five contenders in the MIAC (along with Bethel, St. Thomas and Concordia-Moorhead).
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Washington and Jefferson at Bethany. It seems like every week, whether in Triple Take or on the ATN Podcast or on the message boards, we’ve talked about the surprise undefeated teams out there. While Bethany isn’t undefeated, I have no reservations talking about the Bison as a surprise this season. At 5-1, they’ve already matched their best win total since 2001, and it’s tough to fault them for their lone loss, which came against Mount Union in Week 1. The winner of this one will be the only team that remains undefeated in conference play.
Pat’s take: No. 13 UW-Stevens Point at No. 14 UW-Platteville. I’ll throw out the classic term “elimination game” on this contest, because even though both are unbeaten in the conference, neither has played UW-Whitewater yet. I’ll have to caveat this by saying Stevens Point could be a candidate at 8-2 with a win vs. North Central and potential losses to UW-P and UW-W, but the committee is too unpredictable from year to year to really give a two-loss team hope as an at-large.

Surprisingly close game
Keith’s take: Heidelberg at No. 3 Mount Union. Let’s be clear. Against the Purple Raiders, who have won their first four games by an average score of 64-4, anything resembling a normal football score is “surprisingly close.” Mount Union has allowed three touchdowns this season, none with the margin tighter than 38. Heidelberg comes in scoring 51.2 points per game and will become the first team to score on Mount Union in the first half this season. It might even lead in the game. The Student Princes, who were not competitive in a 43-16 loss to John Carroll earlier this season, lost 44-34 to Mount Union last year, and 30-13 the year before. Those would be surprisingly close, grading on the UMU scale.
Ryan’s take: No. 15 Wittenberg at Wooster. I think Witt has inched up a little too high in the Top 25, and last week’s seven-point win over a middling Denison squad didn’t do a lot to reaffirm faith in the Tigers. I don’t think Witt is vulnerable to all-out losing this one, but I think it’ll be closer than it should be for a 15th-ranked team. Wooster has played two tough teams already, so they shouldn’t be in for any surprises lining up against a team like Wittenberg.
Pat’s take: Occidental at Chapman. Chapman is on the verge of the Top 25, and perhaps could be ranked higher than Pacific Lutheran based on how they both played Linfield, but that’s neither here nor there. Going out on a limb because Occidental isn’t really back yet based on the results to date: edging Puget Sound and losing at Austin College outside of conference play. One wouldn’t expect a particularly close game here, so expect something a little closer.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset
Keith’s take: No. 25 Hampden-Sydney, vs. Emory & Henry. As a Randolph-Macon grad, trust, I feel icky praising either of these teams. But it’s deserved. The Tigers should win, especially at home, where their attendance is behind only St. John’s and UW-Whitewater in D-III. But they have had a midseason stumble against a lower-rung ODAC team the past two seasons. The Wasps are 5-0 and revived under Curt Newsome, but it can be tempting to think of a team that most experienced H-SC players are used to beating handily as another lower-rung squad, and that’s when upsets happen.
Ryan’s take: None. This is perhaps the hardest question of the week, and it’s the one I’m filling out last. I think there could be a handful of teams (Wooster, Utica, Bethany, Gustavus Adolphus and Emory and Henry) that hang with their Top 25 foes early on, but I don’t see any of them following through for all four quarters to grab the win.
Pat’s take: No. 22 St. Johns, at Gustavus Adolphus. Yep, alright, gonna roll the dice here. Keith and I have been talking about Gustavus Adolphus as a potential 6-0 team since August … and then as a potential 6-4 team. But let’s see if these Gusties and their golden-boy quarterback, Mitch Hendricks, can pull off the upset. Gustavus beat St. John’s last year, and for those of you who don’t know, Hendricks is a former Johnnie, having transferred to Gustavus.

Provide an underranked team and predict how they’ll perform in Week 7.
Keith’s take: No. 20 Washington & Jefferson. The two most underranked teams, Texas Lutheran and Buffalo State, are off this week. The only other ones I have much lower than their ranking are Pacific Lutheran and the Presidents, who travel to Bethany. It’s a huge game for the Bison, who opened up with Mount Union and have seen top talent before. But even in Bethany’s five consecutive wins, they haven’t been so suffocating defensively that I can envision them stopping W&J’s 52.2-point per game offense, so I see the Presidents taking control of the PAC race.
Ryan’s take: Ithaca. It’s hard to figure out who’s underrated enough to register significantly (the only team in which there’s a big gap between my ballot and the actual Top 25 is Buffalo State, which has a bye week). But in keeping with the Empire 8, I think it was a bit drastic to drop Ithaca completely out of the poll after losing to Buff State. Ithaca was ranked No. 13 the week prior, so a lot of other one-loss teams leapfrogged them in the top 25. Ithaca is still on my ballot, and I think this week against Frostburg State will be a relatively easy one, especially considering the poundings the Bobcats have been taking so far in conference play.
Pat’s take: No. 17 Widener. It is so much easier for me to think in terms of overrated teams, but of course, for every overrated team there has to be an underrated team, right? So let’s go with Widener beating Wilkes. It won’t be 90-0, but if you get 90, think about taking the over.

Pick a team that put up big numbers last week and tell us if they’ll do it again.
Keith’s take: Delaware Valley, at Stevenson. The 52 points Lycoming “held” the Aggies to last week was their lowest point total since 30 in Week 1 against Montclair State. Stevenson brings a pretty legit defense into the game, as they allow just 14 points a game and are 31st nationally in total defense. They’re even better against the run (22nd, 95 ypg), and are coming off a bye week. I’m not sure it’ll matter much against the high-powered Aggies, especially since Stevenson’s 230th-ranked offense won’t be able to keep up with QB Aaron Wilmer and Del Val’s 50.2-point per game unit. Stevenson’s last time out, a 31-10 loss to Lycoming, showed us that the Mustangs aren’t quite ready to gallop with the MAC’s big horses yet.
Ryan’s take: Concordia (Wis.), at Trine. Once Concordia got rolling in the second half last week against Aurora, there was no stopping them. The end result was 62 points on the scoreboard, 754 offensive yards and a quarterback, Austin Damaschke, getting four touchdowns. Trine, which is 4-1 and has a solid red-zone defense, isn’t going to give up that kind of yardage or that kind of score. At the very least, we can expect Trine’s offense to stay on the field longer, severely limiting the damage Concordia can do with its own O. To answer the original question: No, Concordia won’t do it again.
Pat’s take: Castleton State, at Mount Ida. Would have said Washington U. here, but instead of playing Maranatha Baptist, Wash U. has an unexpected bye. Apparently the Sabercats have just 22 healthy players. Guess I’m not sure why Maranatha couldn’t have given a little more warning on pulling out of games. Instead I’ll take the Spartans, who have turned it around after last year’s lost season.

Which muddled conference race gets less muddled this week?
Keith’s take: NWC. Linfield, the perennial favorite, is already in control here, with a win over perennial challenger Pacific Lutheran and as one of only two NWC teams without a conference loss. But with Whitworth coming off a 61-45 win at Willamette, their game with Linfield might show us if there’s a second challenger in the NWC or if the Wildcats will run away with it. Pacific Lutheran goes to Pacific as well, and at the bottom end, restartup George Fox gets one of its two chances for a win this season against an improved Puget Sound. Even if all the results play out as expected, folks far from NWC country pay attention, because the presence (or not) of a second NWC team in the postseason picture has trickle-down implications for the entire 32-team bracket. (Because of geography, and playoff travel cost restrictions, for the uninitiated)
Ryan’s take: ODAC. I’ll play the Virginia card and pick the game that involves a school two hours to the east of me (Hampden-Sydney) and another about two hours to the southwest (Emory and Henry). E&H has certainly elbowed its way into the ODAC discussion with an unblemished record, and Hampden-Sydney, despite a nonconference loss, is showing itself to be every bit the conference threat of recent years. Behind Nash Nance, Hampden-Sydney likes to throw the ball — and it does so well. The Wasps, however, have the best pass defense in the conference. The way these opponents balance each other out makes this particularly interesting.
Pat’s take: MIAC. I mean, I’m contractually required to pick this, right? Assume one of the two guys ahead of me who still lives in Virginia will take the ODAC, but we also start unraveling the knot at the top of the MIAC this week with Gustavus hosting St. John’s. Of the five teams with zero or one MIAC losses at the top of the conference standings, Gustavus has yet to play any of them, while St. Thomas has only played St. John’s. Concordia-Moorhead has beaten SJU and lost to Bethel. St. John’s has played two of the four. So in short, a lot of key games left to be played.

They’ll be on your radar
Keith’s take: Morrisville State. Rowan is receiving only one vote in the poll, but one might not even be the number of teams who are going to challenge the Profs for the NJAC title. Montclair State has won four straight since a 10-point loss to Del Val, but it’s the Mustangs who are most intriguing. Quarterback Lemar Johnson is rushing for more than 130 yards per game over his past four, and is coming off a 302-yard passing, one-big-highlight day against Kean. If they can get enough from the defense, after allowing 31 points three times and 40 once in its 5-1 start, we could have a conference race to watch.
Ryan’s take: East Texas Baptist. A week after losing to Texas Lutheran, I’m eager to see if there will be a hangover at ETBU when the team lines up against Howard Payne. Fun fact: Howard Payne’s last game was also against Texas Lutheran.
Pat’s take: Tufts. Again. This week the 2-2 Jumbos have a legitimate shot of knocking off Williams. And six weeks ago, let alone three years ago, that would have seemed like fantasy.

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.