Triple Take: Driving the season home

Washington and LeePlayoff roads are being paved across the country as we enter Week 10.

We’ve seen the landscape change over the past two months. There have been break-downs and wrong turns by many along the way, but others have found the route to be direct and relatively free of bumps.

Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps present their latest gridiron map to help you navigate your way through Saturday.

Game of the Week.
Ryan’s take: No. 5 North Central at No. 15 Wheaton.
There’s barely anything that needs to be said about the magnitude of this matchup. Not only have both teams spent most of the season in our Top 25, they are currently in the first and second spots on the NCAA regional rankings. That means the winner could nab a top seed come playoff time. And what’s not to love about two teams that average 426 and 415 offensive yards per game in one of the country’s toughest conferences.
Pat’s take: No. 25 Wabash at No. 9 Wittenberg. The regional rankings make it fairly clear this is a playoff elimination game, as neither is in line for an at-large bid. Wittenberg’s Ben Zoeller leads Division III in passing efficiency, while Tyler Burke has made just two starts after the Little Giants lost Chase Belton. Burke threw two picks against Oberlin after coming off the bench but has gone 36-for-63 in his two starts. This game doesn’t have the luster I’d hoped for when I booked my flight a few months ago but the NCAC title is still on the line. (If it wins, Wittenberg would still have to beat Wooster next week to stay out of a three-way tie scenario.)
Keith’s take: No. 13 Wartburg at No. 17 Central. Here, and in No. 19 Hampden-Sydney at Washington & Lee, are third leg of the triangle games. And ones we’ve been waiting on for weeks. While the Tigers need to win to force a showdown with Randolph-Macon next week, in the IIAC, Coe has already beaten Central (37-28 in Week 4) and Wartburg has beaten Coe (31-21 in Week 7). Both the Knights, who can win the IIAC outright, and the Dutch, who can force a three-way tie, rush for more than 200 yards per game and have held four oppoents under 10 points. Rushing and defense as the formula for a November win in Iowa makes sense, but something has to give when the Central (75 rush yards allowed per game) and Wartburg (108) rushing defenses face the opponents’ ground attack.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Redlands at Whittier.
The 6-1 Bulldogs won’t get off easy against the 2-5 Poets. This could get interesting because, statistically, the teams cancel each other out on several fronts, most notably with Redlands’ passing attack and Whittier’s run game. That could mean that the team with the most dynamic plays or that commits the fewest turnovers (something that works against Whittier) will be the team that can walk away the victor.
Pat’s take: No. 1 UW-Whitewater at UW-Oshkosh. UW-Oshkosh struggled a little bit on the road at UW-Eau Claire last week but the team with the toughest schedule, at least anecdotally, in Division III, won’t be intimidated by a home game against the top-ranked team in the country. The Titans represented themselves well against No. 2 Mount Union back in Week 2. The difference: UW-Whitewater will be tougher on defense and knows what its run game is all about, where the Purple Raiders didn’t have that figured out in their opener. Still, I expect a game that’s less than four touchdowns.
Keith’s take: Louisana College at McMurry. This matchup of the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 passing offenses might be surprisingly close for those who’ve followed from afar. Since the Wildcats started 1-3 and McMurry has put up big numbers against the ASC’s big-name opponents, the latter has garnered most of the publicity. But since LC has won four in a row, both teams are 5-3, pass for more than 380 yards per game and more than 13 yards per completion. LC’s Ben McLaughlin leads the nation in total offense, as does the team, because they also rush for 140 yards per game. McMurry’s Jake Mullin, he of the two seven-TD games, has passed 330 times with just two interceptions. With 53 (LC) and 45 (McM) touchdowns on the season, if this one is close, at 45-44, that would seem about right. Surprisingly close would be 14-13 or 24-21.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 2 Mount Union.
Truth be told, I probably wouldn’t bet much more than a nickel on this happening. But Baldwin-Wallace has been a team that has surprised a lot of folks this year since its lackluster debut against Wooster. And B-W can probably be seen as one of the two or three teams this season with a chance at knocking off The Machine in the regular season. We saw against Marietta that while Mount still earns our utmost respect, this year’s team is young — and it has weaknesses and inconsistencies. In B-W’s stronger years, they’re often able to play Mount close. I’m interested about what can happen in a year when the Yellow Jackets are up and the Purple Raiders are (relatively speaking) down.
Pat’s take: No. 19 Hampden-Sydney. I don’t think I’m surprising anyone in suggesting that Washington and Lee could well win this game on Saturday. While W&L could well have snuck up on Randolph-Macon, they haven’t snuck up on anyone since. And with a playoff bid on the line, one would have to expect (hope?) that more than 780 show up in Lexington this time around. The challenge for Hamdpen-Sydney will be getting the ball back. W&L held the ball for more than 40 minutes last week at Catholic (although the Generals haven’t dominated time of possession nearly as much in any other game this season).
Keith’s take: No. 10 Thomas More. No. 5 North Central, No. 9 Wittenberg and No. 13 Wartburg could all lose, but it’d be tough to classify those as upsets. If Waynesburg, even at 6-2, pulled the stunner against the Saints, it would definitely be one. Thomas More leads the PAC in nearly every statistical category and gave up 45 points — total — in five October games. If Yellow Jackets quarterback Brad Dawson, the PAC passing leaader, is outstanding and the rest of the team realizes what’s at stake — a Week 10 win against Thomas More and one in Week 11 against Washington & Jefferson would make Waynesburg a playoff team — it could happen. It’s unlikely, but some years, once November arrives, surprises are sprinkled across the national playoff picture.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: Kean.
The Cougars have not fared well against the trio of NJAC powers, but they’ve had a lot of success plowing through the middle of the conference pack. This week they take on 4-4 New Jersey before hitting the road and becoming Wesley’s last obstacle to a likely No. 1 seed. It’s also easy to get excited to see Jason Gwaltney in his final two regular season games. The running back may not be at West Virginia anymore, but he is still the kind of player who makes an impact on the field. This year, he’s averaging 161 yards a game — which, by the way, puts him third-best in the country in that regard.
Pat’s take: Hanover. Look for the Panthers to continue Mount St. Joseph’s season of struggles and set up a Victory Bell showdown with Franklin in Week 11 that is for a little more than pride and a trophy, namely, the HCAC title.
Keith’s take: Case Western Reserve. Before last week’s 24-20 loss at Chicago, folks were considering the Spartans a lock for a Pool B playoff spot. Now they might not even win the UAA. Back at home against Wash. U., CWRU is on display. If the team has enough heart, and plays well, we’ll see a bounce back. The Bears are 6-2 and riding a five-game win streak that includes a victory against No. 25 Wabash.

A team that will clinch a share of the conference title on Saturday.
Ryan’s take: No. 14 Trine.
The way Trine has been, erm, thundering through its conference slate, I don’t see anything short of another MIAA title coming to fruition. This week, Kalamazoo will be on the receiving end of a team that has averaged 45 points a game this season. Kzoo’s record isn’t where they’d probably like it to be, but they do have a solid passing attack that could make a dent against Trine. However, the Hornets’ strength on offense is also the Thunders’ strength on defense. That should be a good test for Trine ahead of Albion and a likely playoff run around the corner.
Pat’s take: No. 6 Mary Hardin-Baylor. The hardest part about playing Sul Ross State is getting to Alpine, Texas. UMHB should be on our Pool A list by about 4:45 ET on Saturday. But not back on campus before midnight.
Keith’s take: St. Norbert. The also-rans of the Midwest Conference had a prime opportunity to crack the dominant hold the Green Knights and the Monmouth Scots have had on the top spot for most of the past decade, as each team lost early, and lost again in October. But despite a three-point Week 2 defeat at Beloit and a one-point setback in Week 6 against Illinois College, St. Norbert is atop the MWC again, because everyone else has at least three conference losses. And with the Green Knights playing their season straight through with no bye, a home win against Lake Forest on Saturday will wrap up a conference title and a West Region playoff game at somewhere other than St. Thomas, which played in DePere in Week 1. Not bad for going 7-3; two years ago, that was good enough for third place behind Monmouth and Ripon.

Which season turnaround has been the most interesting?
Ryan’s take: Washington and Lee.
The Generals started the season 1-2, a record that seemed to indicate that W&L was on track to match the 4-6 seasons of 2008 and ’09. What has emerged is a season that’s a lot more special than those. A win against Hampden-Sydney would send W&L, which is rooted in an ODAC-record-setting ground attack, back to the playoffs for the first time in nearly half a decade. A loss, though, doesn’t count them out yet either because H-SC still has to play one-loss Randolph-Macon, which W&L beat earlier in the year. With how good both the Tigers and Generals are, there’s nothing certain about the results come Saturday. And the fact that both are in such enviable positions of being in control of their playoff destinies is exciting to watch unfold.
Pat’s take: Muhlenberg. After a 3-7 season last fall, and Johns Hopkins, F&M, Ursinus and Susquehanna entering the season with reason to be seen as Centennial Conference contenders, the Mules weren’t given much thought. Although they gave up a lot of points (by Muhlenberg standards) early in the season, the defense has been more locked in of late and should give Ursinus plenty to think about on Saturday.
Keith’s take: St. Lawrence. Either way you qualify turnaround — from a rough start to this season, or reversing a program’s poor history — the Saints fit. Under former Ithaca defensive coordinator Mark Raymond, St. Lawrence lost its first three games of the season, but has since won four of five — the same number of games it won the past two full seasons — to take control of the Liberty League race and put itself in position for a playoff spot.

What team not in the playoff hunt has a lot to gain?
Ryan’s take: Susquehanna.
Any way you cut it, the Crusaders will have had the steepest dropoff, record-wise, of any 2009 playoff team. Their new conference, the Centennial, has not been kind to them. They went 1-8 on that front and haven’t had a win since the second week of September. We talk a lot about moral victories. Toppling former league-mate WPI on Saturday would certainly fit that bill.
Pat’s take: Wilkes. Following last week’s big home win against Lycoming, the Colonels have a chance to finish the season 7-3 by winning out and earn a trip to an ECAC bowl game, which would have to be pretty satisfying after a 1-2 start.
Keith’s take: Pacific. The Northwest Conference had not been kind to the Boxers, in their first season of the program’s revival after a two-decade absence. In a three-week stretch of October, Pacific lost by 48, 62 and 52 points. The past two games, a 24-12 defeat against Whitworth and a 42-31 loss to Puget Sound, aren’t wins, and got closer late in the fourth quarter, but they weren’t 50-point losses either. At 0-7, the Boxers aren’t going to be the champions of anything, but finishing strong, against top 25 Pacific Lutheran Saturday and Menlo next week, will get the ball rolling toward a crucial offseason of program-building.