Quick Hits: Predicting the Semifinals

One thing we can predict with certainty- history will be made in these semifinals.  North Central or Muhlenberg will reach their first Stagg Bowl.  In the second semifinal, one titan of Division III will return to national finals.  Who is advancing to next week’s national championship?  Here are our takes:

— Greg Thomas (photo by Dean Reid,

The Quick Hits
playoff crew:

Keith McMillan
Ryan Tipps
Pat Coleman
Pat Coleman
Adam Turer
Adam Turer
Frank Rossi
Frank Rossi
Greg Thomas
Greg Thomas

North Central (12-1) at Muhlenberg (13-0), 12 p.m. ET, ESPN3

NCC LogoKeith:  The more I think about this, the more the idea that North Central has faced the top three defenses in the country already, and scored 21, 31 and 59, matters. Certainly the Mules’ defense might turn out to be better than Wheaton, Del Val or Mount Union, and it has given up one touchdown in three playoff games, but the level of competition throughout the season hasn’t been the same. Couple that with all-everything quarterback Broc Rutter and and offense that has no weaknesses, and I don’t see NCC getting shut down, especially given their WRs vs. the Mules’ DBs. So Michael Hnatkowsky and company will have to score, and get the home crowd into it, to ride into the program’s first Stagg Bowl.  North Central 35, Muhlenberg 21.

Ryan: There’s little that still needs to be said about Muhlenberg’s defense, one that has played near shutout football throughout the postseason. Yet never have the Mules encountered an offense a skillfully and strategically balanced as North Central’s. That’s going to make game-planning significantly harder than it was against teams like run-heavy Salisbury or even Brockport State. Clamp down on Ethan Greenfield, and Broc Rutter’s arm will shred you. Double-cover Andrew Kamienski, then DeAngelo Hardy will get extra touches. While the final score isn’t going to be overtly lopsided, I go into this one feeling that it’s North Central’s game to lose — and thus having the advantage. NCC also brings an offense that even Mount Union couldn’t slow (school record books, anyone?), and that should be a concern for any other team out there. As would be the case in most any game at this level, turnovers can drastically shift the tone of the matchup. Overall, both teams certainly come out ahead of their opponents this season in that regard, but fumbles are a concern: each team has coughed up the ball 16 times: the Mules turning it over 11 times, the Cardinals eight. Hang onto the ball, and you could hang onto a win.  North Central 31, Muhlenberg 23.

Pat: There is going to be so much to watch for and watch about this game that I can’t wait for it. How will the North Central offensive line handle the pressure coming from defensive ends Frankie Feaster and Dante Lonardo? What time will Broc Rutter have to throw? If Muhlenberg learns nothing else from the Mount Union game video, it will be that if you give Rutter time, he will find the right guy and pick you apart. I’ve been really impressed with DeAngelo Hardy in this postseason, so you can’t just try to take Andrew Kamienski away, and Ethan Greenfield seemed to be in good form in the quarterfinals, with 28 carries for 93 yards. Muhlenberg should get some points on the board — this is Michael Hnatkowsky’s final audition for an All-America slot as well, as there are probably four strong candidates for the final spot on our list. I’m expecting North Central not to score a season-low in terms of points, but I am envisioning Muhlenberg holding things in check. The Cardinals are not just a quick-strike offense, either, and can hold the ball and control the clock pretty well when it’s called for.  North Central 24, Muhlenberg 21.

Adam: The Cardinals won’t get a Little Brass Bell rematch this year, but they will get another test against one of the nation’s premier defenses. Muhlenberg’s is a hair behind Wheaton’s, but no defense has dominated the postseason like the Mules, who have allowed just eight points through three games. North Central has one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Broc Rutter. The Cardinals also boast one of the nation’s best offensive linemen (Sharmore Clark), running backs (Ethan Greenfield), and wide receivers (Andrew Kamienski). It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. But the first time this unit faced a defense of Muhlenberg’s caliber, they were held to a season-low 21 points. On the other hand, they hung 59 on Mount Union just two weeks ago. Michael Hnatkowsky and the Mules offense can keep up with Rutter in a shootout. The defense can create enough havoc to stymie the Cardinals. I expect another classic playoff game involving NCC, and another heartbreaking exit for the CCIW.  Muhlenberg 27, North Central 26.

Frank: The best thing I think you can do when looking at a game like this is go back to the North Central loss to Wheaton and compare Wheaton to Muhlenberg — and then ask if anything has changed. Wheaton and Muhlenberg appear to be similar in terms of defensive strength, with Muhlenberg maybe being even a bit stronger in the last few weeks. North Central’s offense can be stopped or slowed down — even Delaware Valley could do that last week for periods of time. The question becomes whether or not Michael Hnatkowski and the Muhlenberg offense can score enough points in what should be a game that might barely reach the 20s on the scoreboard, especially if it rains. I think the Mules can score enough and hold back the Cardinals’ offense for a close victory at home.  Muhlenberg 21, North Central 17.

Greg: While so much attention has been paid to the fireworks and upsets all over the bracket, Muhlenberg has fairly quietly gone about the business of reaching the semifinals for the first time in school history. The Mules defense has allowed one measly touchdown in three tournament games- that one a garbage time score to a team that had scored over 140 points in two tournament games. This week Muhlenberg faces one of the best and most balanced offenses in the country. Broc Rutter is the headliner for North Central, but Ethan Greenfield has a 300-yard rushing game in this tournament and the Cardinal offensive line is about as they come in the Division. This is going to be a phenomenal strength-on-strength game. I just can’t talk myself out of believing that the team that won in Alliance isn’t going to be the team to reach Shenandoah. I expect Rutter will find just enough places to be successful against Muhlenberg and the Cardinals to advance to their first Stagg Bowl.  North Central 27, Muhlenberg 20.

Saint John’s (12-1) at UW-Whitewater (12-1), 2:00 p.m. CT, ESPN3

Keith: It’s hard to know whether the physicality that the Warhawks used to smother defending champ Mary Hardin-Baylor last week plays as well against Jackson Erdmann and the Johnnies. Conventional wisdom is that it probably should, and a great defense, O-line and three-headed backfield monster certainly leads one to believe UW-W can return to the Stagg Bowl. But whether you believe in Johnnie Magic or just great players carrying good teams, the Johnnies rallied from 9 down for two late scores in Round 1, and held off everything a loaded Wheaton team threw at them in Round 3. Why not once more, setting up an epic QB clash in Shenandoah?  Saint John’s 22, UW-Whitewater 21.

SJU logoRyan: Pound the Rock…Johnnie Magic…It’s feeling a lot like the D-III of years gone by. But here we are, seeing two Upper Midwest titans aiming to rekindle the fires of tradition and again land themselves in the Stagg Bowl. The Johnnies, however, come into this better positioned to take that leap, largely thanks to the dynamic passing of Gagliardi Trophy-winner Jackson Erdmann (who very well could repeat that individual honor). UW-River Falls at 2-8 is the only team with a really solid passing attack that the Warhawks have encountered, and that team put up 28 points on UW-W, the most of any team all season. And River Falls is feeble compared to what Saint John’s can bring to the table. As the Warharks continue to find themselves breathing life in to their old hard-nosed rushing style, the simple notion of falling behind early will put them in the unenviable position of having to play catchup, something that I don’t think they have the offensive tools to do. Saint John’s, on the other hand, should be able to keep airing it out and launching themselves toward the next Stagg Bowl.  Saint John’s 41, UW-Whitewater 28.

SJU logoPat: This game is as much of a puzzle as last week’s Saint John’s game, and since I was wrong (sad trombone) on both UW-Whitewater and Saint John’s last week, that should be a good indicator that this is a tough call as well. The Johnnies will score on UW-Whitewater, that is clear. They’ll be counting on J.W. Windsor and Richard Carriveau and the guys up front … plus Danny Pietruszewski and the linebackers to slow that Warhawk running game enough and get the SJU offense back on the field. Jackson Erdmann doesn’t need a ton of time to get the ball in the end zone, and in fact, will probably do better with a longer field and more room to work with and get those stud sophomore receivers to make things happen in space. I waited as long as I could to write this and the weather looks pretty good for tomorrow, so with that, I am going with:  Saint John’s 27, UW-Whitewater 23.

SJU logoAdam: The Warhawks’ game plan is simple: stop Jackson Erdmann. The Warhawks’ game plan is extremely difficult: stop Jackson Erdmann. There are no secrets among the WIAC and MIAC foes. UW-Whitewater wants to repeat its performance from the quarterfinals, taking the air out of the football and the opponent. But the Johnnies can do more with less, and time of possession won’t be as critical for an offense that can strike quick and deep. Erdmann led the Johnnies to 34 points against Wheaton, two more scores than the Thunder had allowed in any game this season. Whitewater’s offense was its best defense against Mary Hardin-Baylor. Saint John’s rush defense will need to step up against UWW to avoid a rock pounding. The Warhawks can’t keep the ball out of Erdmann’s hands all day. A bit of Johnnie Magic will propel Saint John’s to the Stagg Bowl for the first time since 2003.  Saint John’s 33, UW-Whitewater 27.

SJU logoFrank: With all the discussion of the Warhawks defense and the team’s “Bully the Bully” approach that Max Meylor told us about against UMHB, what we’re seeing from the Johnnies in the playoffs is a similar approach. The Johnnies’ offense is bullying the defenses they have faced. Wheaton had pitched five shutouts (and allowed seven or less points seven times), but the Johnnies put up 34 points against the vaunted Wheaton defense. They haven’t won pretty in the playoffs, but Saint John’s seems to know how to dissect strong defenses better than UMHB did. They’ll again do just enough to hold off the Warhawks.  Saint John’s 28, Wis.-Whitewater 24.

SJU logoGreg: The Warhawks so very impressively imposed their will on UMHB last week that I’ve had to rethink everything I thought I knew about UW-Whitewater. The degree of domination done by both offensive and defensive lines smacked of the most dominant of Warhawk championship teams of yesteryear. The challenge for Saint John’s will be to do a thing that UMHB couldn’t- get UWW’s offense off of the field. No doubt the Warhawks will seek to limit Jackson Erdmann’s possessions, so the Johnnie defense will be tasked to limit the rushing Cerberus of Jarrod Ware, Alex Peete, and Ronny Ponick and get the ball back into the hands of their star quarterback. The Johnnies will also be challenged to keep pressure off of Erdmann and afford Ravi Alston and T.J. Hodge to do their thing in the intermediate and deep parts of the field. We should know very early on if Saint John’s can match the Warhawks physically, and if they can, it’s difficult to pick against the reigning Gagliardi trophy winner.  Saint John’s 24, UW-Whitewater 21.

We invite you to add your predictions in the comments below. Download the Around the Nation podcast on Mondays and Fridays.


2 thoughts on “Quick Hits: Predicting the Semifinals

  1. Hoping NC makes it to the finals. They beat a powerhouse in Alliance and are so close.

    As for SJU-UW-W, no mention about two things that you usually discuss. 1. Common opponent where one won and one lost ugly — C-M. 2. The Achilles Heal of SJU — special teams (kicking game.) The latter could be an issue if the game is close. UW-W has a significant, proven advantage in this category. Question is does this come to haunt the Johnnies? Only the Shadow knows …

  2. St. John’s defense isn’t that good and Whitewater will control the ball all day long. It won’t be close on the field or on the scoreboard and Whitewater will win something like 35-14.

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