ATN Podcast: All about the defense

Mount Union defense
Mount Union might be struggling on offense but you can’t beat them if you can’t score.
Mount Union athletics photo by JT Higgins

Records could fall, bids could be clinched, but the key story of this past week was big defensive performances by the top teams. UW-Whitewater’s defense may well have won it the game at Oshkosh, Mount Union shut down and picked off Capital, St. Thomas did its job at Bethel and North Central more than did so at Illinois Wesleyan. But as we caution, don’t forget special teams.

And there seems to be a bit of a pecking order emerging for those six at-large playoff bids. Who is in the drivers seat, as much as anyone can be for an at-large bid? Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan name six teams. They discuss that and more in this week’s Around the Nation Podcast. See the list of tags at the bottom of this post to see who else is discussed.

You can also get this and any of our future Around the Nation podcasts automatically by subscribing to this RSS feed:

Plus, here’s the first look at this week’s D3reports, as well as Division III football highlight reels. These will also appear on the front page on Monday afternoon.

Triple Take: Top 25s collide

Nate Wara
If healthy, Nate Wara can hurt teams with his arm and legs.
By Larry Radloff,

Three crucial games between Top 25 teams take place this weekend. Each and every Saturday, players line up to help sort out conference races and hopefully take down rivals, but these national games have an even broader audience because of their implications toward the NCAA postseason. Many eyes should be watching.

Giving you insight into some of the Top 25 as well as pieces of the rest of the 214 teams out there are Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps.

Game of the Week.
Ryan’s take: No. 6 North Central at No. 15 Illinois Wesleyan.
Truth be told, both of these teams are in the Top 10 on my ballot and are separated by just two spots. Both teams are coming off of games against mid-pack CCIW squads, so be ready to see them hit the ground running. If the Titans hope to pull the upset, they need to be mistake-free through the air and able to create some big plays. Take too long in the pocket? North Central will get you. Hiccup into too many third-down situations? North Central will force the punt. But Illinois Wesleyan should be able to stop the Cardinals’ multi-pronged run game better than any team so far this season, so weight will be on North Central not to let momentum falter amid a few stuffed plays.
Keith’s take: No. 1 UW-Whitewater at No. 20 UW-Oshkosh. That CCIW game might end up being the GOTW, but if Titans QB Nate Wara and Warhawks LB Greg Arnold both play, the WIAC could hog the spotlight. It’s rare that the Warhawks get a challenge, but UW-Oshkosh is loose — coach Pat Cerroni told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the pressure is on Whitewater — and has legitimate credentials. The Warhawks and Titans are 1-2 in the WIAC in total offense and defense. In four wins against WIAC teams (though only three count in the conference standings), UW-Oshkosh has outscored the opposition, 145-36. That’s less than 10 points allowed per game, and while they’re unlikely to match that against Whitewater, they might not have to stay in the playoff hunt. Aside from a one-point loss to UW-Stevens Point in 2008, Whitewater hasn’t lost a WIAC game since 2004. They’re 44-1, and even if Oshkosh can’t make it a 2, a good showing would keep them in the mix, in my opinion. Playing both Whitewater and Mount Union makes the Titans an exception to any rule.
Pat’s take: No. 3 St. Thomas at No. 10 Bethel. I’m not sure I need to say anything more here so I won’t, except to say that St. Thomas players and coaches have talked about enjoying playing Bethel because they just line up and bring it with hard-nosed smash-mouth football.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Mount Ida at SUNY-Maritime.
Maritime is at the top of the ECFC, is undefeated in conference play and is the reigning conference champion. But what 3-3 Mount Ida has is a competitive team that can move the ball — a lot. To the tune of nearly 500 yards a game in conference play, in fact. The Privateers will be in trouble if they can’t slow running back Johrone Bunch or can’t keep their penalties in check.
Keith’s take: Mount Ida at SUNY-Maritime. Usually we aim not to repeat games, but I went through my usual routine without seeing Ryan’s pick, and this game stood out. Here’s why: Of the top 22 defenses in the country by yardage, 13 belong to undefeated teams and five more are one-loss squads. Then there’s Mount Ida. It allows just 233 yards per game, and 106 rushing. Although the Mustangs have faced some teams that struggle to move the ball, they’ve also taken teams out of what they do well. That’s what it takes against the triple-option attack of the Privateers. The Mustangs might fall to 3-4, but they should make Maritime work to make it happen.
Pat’s take: No. 14 Salisbury at Hartwick. How close does it have to be to surprise? Closer than 42 points? Closer than 69? At some point the back-to-back trips to upstate New York will slow the Sea Gulls down, just not enough to put this game in serious doubt.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 17 Redlands.
Though Occidental is certainly having a down year, the Tigers match up fairly well against the Bulldogs. Occidental is almost an all-pass offense, and Redlands’ strength isn’t stopping the pass, it’s stopping the run. So if Oxy can find a way to move the ball and stay on the plus side of turnovers as they have over the whole of the season, then they may be able to make some noise in this game.
Keith’s take: No. 24 St. Olaf. Ninth-ranked Montclair State could be in trouble without quarterback Tom Fischer against TCNJ, but the Oles’ game at Augsburg is worth focusing on. St. Olaf might feel the pressure of being ranked for the first time this season, although it’s deserved. A road win against the Auggies (4-2) would go a long way toward proving the comeback against Bethel was not a fluke. Last week’s win against Carleton was the first time the Oles held a team below 22 points, and Augsburg is averaging 26 a game even after a shutout against St. Thomas two weeks ago. The Auggies have lost two in a row and should play with a season-saving sense of urgency.
Pat’s take: No. 6 North Central. Illinois Wesleyan plays the top CCIW teams better at home, there’s no two ways about it. In 2008 and 2010, having to travel to North Central and Wheaton, IWU finished a combined 7-7 in the league. In 2009 and so far in 2011, the Titans are 9-1, having already beaten Wheaton.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: No. 11 Wabash.
How’s my 11th-ranked alma mater just now on my radar, you ask? Well, I’ve certainly kept the Little Giants close at heart all season, but this week, they may be defined by how well they respond after seeing some weaknesses in their armor after last Saturday’s Oberlin game. The Yeomen were down 30-3 at one point and battled back against a nationally ranked team to within one score. Wabash needs to make sure it has confidence down the stretch and, possibly, into the postseason. Right now, the Little Giants’ opponents are just 12-24, a record that hasn’t given the team much chance to really prove themselves. This week’s Denison is 3-4, and the next two teams, Allegheny and Wittenberg, are both above .500. Wabash will need to sign, stamp and seal its show of force in these next three matchups.
Keith’s take: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. My radar. I love this category because it’s the only pick I can’t get wrong. And what would be wrong about wanting to see how the Stags bounce back from being on the wrong end of the play of the week, a hail mary that kept Redlands from having to play overtime? The 2-3 Stags are at Whittier this week, then play Cal Lutheran the following Saturday. In Kyle Sweeney’s first season at the helm, CMS seems like it’s on the path to someday being a legitimate SCIAC contender, but first I want to see how it performs after last week’s devastation. If so, perhaps it plays spoiler.
Pat’s take: The College of New Jersey. With Montclair State facing an immediate future without starting quarterback Tom Fischer, TCNJ has a chance to throw a monkey wrench into the NJAC and open the door wider for Mount Union to be the “East” bracket’s top seed. The oldest college football rivalry in New Jersey isn’t the biggest rivalry for either of these two schools, but surely someone in the Trenton area will mention it. If they’re not too busy talking about it being homecoming.

Which unlikely conference leader is most likely to pick up a loss?
Ryan’s take: Christopher Newport, to N.C. Wesleyan.
As a regular visitor to the playoffs, CNU isn’t in the unlikeliest of spots, but in the preseason, I had expected N.C. Wesleyan and Ferrum to be the two teams atop the USA South, so CNU’s positioning is a little surprising. However, they will certainly be put to the test when they face off against NCWC this weekend. The Bishops are a good team year in and year out, and the Captains have had so many games this fall that were decided by the narrowest of margins. Two of the close ones ended in losses, while two others were wins. I’m not sure CNU will succeed against NCWC if they can’t establish a good-size lead early on.
Keith’s take: Lewis & Clark, to Puget Sound. I couldn’t be more thrilled to see the Pioneers’ program revived. And the Loggers are struggling at 0-6. But there aren’t many candidates for this category (technically Linfield, at 3-0 in the NWC, outpaces L&C at 2-0). I’m just playing the odds. (Can the Pios really be that much improved? Beating Whitworth last week seemed to suggest so.) Last season these two teams played an instant classic, 68-64 game that the Pioneers won on a TD pass with one second left. If UPS can’t muster an upset to get revenge for that, I don’t know what would inspire them.
Pat’s take: Lakeland, to Concordia (Ill.). I’m not sure how many unlikely conference leaders there actually are. UW-Oshkosh is an easy choice as WIAC co-leader to lose to UW-Whitewater but that seems like cheating and there are a couple of other unlikely leaders that I don’t see losing this week. Although Concordia lost a lot of seniors from last year’s squad, they’ve still performed admirably so far and could knock Lakeland out of its first-place tie with Benedictine.

Which team with two or more losses is worth watching?
Ryan’s take: Emory & Henry.
Having seen the Wasps play in their opener this season, I’m confident in saying they are a much better team than their 4-3 record would indicate. One of their losses came against a non-Division III institution, while the other two losses came against 6-1 squads, Hampden-Sydney and Washington and Lee. What’s more, no loss this year was by more than three points. I can’t imagine the frustration this team is feeling. There’s no shortage of talent: Sophomore quarterback Kyle Boden broke an ODAC record en route to a 390-yard passing performance last week, while players like Daniel Preston, Devan Sproles and Tyler Houk have revived the defense. The level of the talent will be on display against Catholic this week.
Keith’s take: Gettysburg. Its 525-yard-per-game offense outpaces Mount Union (No. 3 nationally, a spot behind the Bullets) and UW-Whitewater (No. 9), and it does it with almost perfect balance (254 rushing, 271 passing per game). Plus they host 6-0 Johns Hopkins (No. 6 offense in the nation) Saturday; I’m sure they’re going to be jacked up. This could’ve been my upset pick, but the Bullets seem to run out of them when the defense takes the field. They’re 174th in total defense (389 yards/game and 212th in scoring D, and not just because they’ve given up 56 and 57 in losses. A 14-10 win last week against Muhleberg was the defense’s first step in the right direction.
Pat’s take: McDaniel. The Green Terror made their displeasure known with a preseason conference poll that had McDaniel picked to tie for eighth, but at 1-5, they haven’t put that possibility behind them at all. Trying to muster another couple of wins to salvage some pride starts at Dickinson on Friday night.

What team will turn the biggest 180 from last week?
Ryan’s take: Mount St. Joseph.
Because after a three-week skid, the Lions have nowhere to go but up. They will again be above .500 after lining up against Earlham, which hasn’t won since the 2009 season. MSJ might not be able to compete for a playoff spot anymore this season, but like all teams with great rivalries, they have something to keep them going till the end. Look for them to begin to work out their kinks ahead of the Bridge Bowl Trophy game against Thomas More on Nov. 12.
Keith’s take: Heidelberg. It’s cherry-picking, sure, but playing Mount Union midseason is like a one-week suspension of reality. Before the 56-7 loss to the Purple Raiders, the Student Princes had won four of five and were averaging 451 yards per game of total 0ffense. Throw out last week’s 195 yards of offense, and expect the Germany Woods-led ground attack to pick up where it was two weeks ago in a trip to Marietta. The Pioneers’ two wins are against 0-6 teams, Thiel and Wilmington.
Pat’s take: Anna Maria. The annual other game between third-year programs Anna Maria and Castleton State is this weekend, with Castleton having won the first, 56-52. Anna Maria is 0-25 in its football career and could get off the schneid this weekend.

Triple Take, Rivalry week

Eric Hamilton, Sean Clark
Coach Eric Hamilton, left, always seems to have his team up for archrival Rowan.

They always say that the records go out the window during a rivalry game. Players and coaches handle the emotions — and the pressures — of a rivalry differently. The teams aren’t the same as in other games; they have a unique fire inside them. They’re not always playing to go on to next week; more than ever, they’re playing for now.

The last weekend of the regular season plays host to rivalries across the country. Most people know the biggest ones: Williams/Amherst, Wabash/DePauw, Cortland State/Ithaca, Hampden-Sydney/Randolph-Macon. But there are many that are laced with history and excitement that deserve pomp as well: Muhlenberg/Moravian, Thomas More/Mount St. Joseph, Salisbury/Frostburg State, among others.

Throw down the gauntlet and pick up your spirits. Rivalry week is here. Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps bring you the forecast to those types of games and more in the culmination of the regular season.

Game of the Week.
Ryan’s take: Willamette at No. 19 Pacific Lutheran.
Going into this weekend, the national landscape is still dotted with several one-loss teams (PLU included). Willamette’s chances for a Pool C bid are remote with two losses under its belt, but stranger things have happened when the NCAA gets its mitts on the criteria. And who knows how many teams will be in contention after Saturday afternoon. That leaves us with two teams, coming from the ultra-competitive Northwest Conference, having a lot at stake. Plus, it should be fun to see the collision between PLU and WU, which have scored 265 and 350 points, respectively, this season.
Pat’s take: No. 9 Wittenberg at Wooster. Wittenberg has played quite well at home, rather poorly on the road. Wittenberg’s home slate was relatively soft until this past week: Olivet, Ohio Wesleyan, the Wash U team which had lost at Rhodes the week before, Hiram and Kenyon. Then there was Wabash. Is that a new trend? Good year for the Tigers to have six games at home and four on the road, but Wittenberg will need this particular road victory in order to clinch the NCAC title.
Keith’s take: Wash. U. at Chicago. Though having in the neighborhood of a dozen teams still in pursuit of a bid in Pool C bid in Week 11 isn’t all that abnormal, having so many Pool B teams alive for a playoff spot is. Usually the three spots are all but wrapped up by now. The winner of the game between the Bears and Maroons will be put side-by-side with Salisbury for the third Pool B spot, making this the week’s best matchup of even teams with playoff implications.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: No. 9 Wittenberg at Wooster.
Against decent teams this year, the Scots really haven’t won big nor have they lost big. And with a chance to force a three-way tie in the NCAC, Wooster has a lot to be playing for. What needs to happen? Wooster needs to improve its defense, especially its secondary, if it hopes to have a slice of the NCAC title pie. Big games can do crazy things to teams, and if Witt wants its ticket punched, it will have to earn it.
Pat’s take: No. 23 Montclair State at William Paterson. Based this off of last week’s closer-than-expected Montclair State-Brockport State. The Pioneers have had a bit of a bad stretch of late, but they’re at home, and needing a win to finish the season at .500.
Keith’s take: No. 13 Wartburg at Simpson. Teams with their playoff spots clinched already worry me. It’s important to remember even if you’re in the field of 32, you’re still playing for a potential home game and a better matchup. But unless it’s stressed to them, college kids aren’t always tuned in to such minute details. And every year some team plays its way out of a good situation in Week 11 and gets sent on the road to a powerhouse instead. With one of the nation’s best scoring defenses (No. 11, 11.11 points per game) against one of the worst scoring offenses (No. 218, 13.67), there’s no reason Wartburg, which plowed through its six of its first seven opponents but has beaten the past two by single digits, should lose. But human nature might make it a more difficult win than it would seem.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 17 Cal Lutheran.
In recent years, Cal Lutheran and Occidental have traded wins when they’ve played each other. Not that that’s any real indicator of 2010, when the Kingsmen have a huge win on their resume, but it’s just something to keep in mind. If Cal Lutheran’s secondary doesn’t stay on its toes, it will get shredded by Luke Collis and his receivers. A win is crucial for the Kingsmen because they certainly want to soak up some momentum going into the postseason — especially if they’re going to be forced into a rematch with Linfield.
Pat’s take: No. 19 Pacific Lutheran. Both teams are motivated, we get that. PLU needs the win to stay in the playoff hunt, while Willamette … well, the Bearcats could be in the discussion if enough teams lose, I suppose. But I am looking at this game because I think Willamette has been pushed back under the radar a little unfairly considering their resume this season: two “good” losses and a pretty good road win as well.
Keith’s take: No. 7 Hardin-Simmons. The Cowboys are very deserving of a Pool C bid, especially if they take care of business against 6-3 Louisiana College, a team I thought might have a chance to play its way in in Week 11 way back in Kickoff. HSU is 26th in the country in pass efficiency defense, and it should be able to match up against the nation’s most prolific passing attack and No. 3 scoring offense (LC throws for 387 yards per game and scores about 46 points). But even with the Cowboys being able to match that (304 and 45) and playing to keep postseason hopes alive, the potential here for a shootout makes it a more likely place for an upset than most.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: Louisiana College.
Starting the season 1-3, the Wildcats fell from the broader public discourse early in the season. But at 6-1 in the ASC, they are clearly in the conference’s top tier this season. And they’re coming off a dramatic late-game win against McMurry before hosting Hardin-Simmons this Saturday. HSU is looking to pick up a playoff spot, but LC is ready to spoil that effort and have sole control of No. 2 in the conference. Averaging 385 yards a game, LC’s Ben McLaughlin is the ASC’s most prolific passer. He has just 12 interceptions in over 400 attempts and has connected for scores 37 times.
Pat’s take: Christopher Newport. With the Captains hosting Methodist and already holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over North Carolina Wesleyan, it seems like a foregone conclusion that CNU will be returning to the playoffs. And although they’ll be 6-4, they’ll have cover from St. Lawrence, which will be 5-5 at best, possibly 4-6. Frostburg State is a bad loss back on Week 3, but there haven’t been any other bad losses and four consecutive wins on top of it.
Keith’s take: St. Lawrence. They’re going to make the playoffs yet finish with a losing record. I’d be willing to bet the just-less-than-500-miles-to-Alliance Saints are going to Mount Union next Saturday for a first-round exposure to what a serious D-III playoff team looks like. So the least St. Lawrence can do is beat WPI on Saturday and go in at 5-5 with its heads held high and its confidence up so that it can at least buy into the dream in Ohio, even if it will be hard for the rest of us to do so.

Rivalry game you’re most interested in (alma maters excluded).
Ryan’s take: Randolph-Macon at Hampden-Sydney.
For the first time since 2006, both of the teams in The Game don’t have a shot at going to the postseason. One of them does, however: H-SC. The Tigers can’t win the Old Dominion’s automatic qualifier, but they have some quality wins that will put them in good shape for Pool C contention. While H-SC averages over 420 yards of offense a game, turnovers have been a dangerous Achilles heel for the team. And what’s the story with R-MC? The Yellow Jackets saw their star fade when they lost their fifth-year starting quarterback midway through October. At this point, pride is the biggest thing on the table for them. A worthy goal, to be sure.
Pat’s take: No. 20 Rowan at TCNJ. TCNJ put up a surprise against Kean last week, winning 7-0, holding Jason Gwaltney under 100 yards rushing. Eric Hamilton didn’t win 200-plus games for nothing and don’t expect TCNJ to come out with anything less than everything it’s got against its archrival. This game was good when played on a Friday night, but it belongs in Week 11 and the NJAC should do everything it can to keep it there.
Keith’s take: Hanover at No. 24 Franklin. Victory Bell rivalry game makes it worth watching alone. But put the HCAC title and automatic bid on the line, and ratchet up the excitement to fever pitch. It’s simple, some are going to respond to the pressure, some might wilt under it, and perhaps if most on both teams rise to the challenge, you get a game for the ages, and the winner gets at least one more week of season.

Who will have the least momentum going into the playoffs?
Ryan’s take: No. 6 Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Lack of momentum won’t necessarily be a reason to pick against them when they (presumably) rematch Hardin-Simmons next weekend, but the Crusaders have played their last two games against teams that combine to be 3-15. And UMHB hasn’t been challenged in the least. Saturday, they face off against Texas Lutheran, whose 4-5 wouldn’t be so bad until you realize that they’ve lost three of their last four games, getting crushed in those losses. UMHB had better be ready to step up its game once Round 1 rolls around if it hopes to make it to Round 2.
Pat’s take: St. Lawrence. Regardless of what happens Saturday.
Keith’s take: Coe. There are the games competitors look forward to because they know their best effort will be required, and then there are the ones against 0-9 teams. Cornell might give a better than ‘just playing out the string’ effort for its longtime rival, but Coe should be pulling its starters out early in the second half. And while it’s good to get out and stretch your legs, the Kohawks are going to have to play someone like St. Thomas or Bethel next week. Saturday probably won’t much resemble that.

Which team can alter its fortunes the most?
Ryan’s take: Centre.
The fortunes in question may be long-term. There were high expectations of the Colonels at the beginning of the season, but hiccups from the outset cast a lot of shadows over this team. The offense has just a few seniors in its ranks; the defense, though, is another story. Lots of starters will be graduating. Going up against 3-6 LaGrange, one of the best things Centre can do is make sure that younger defenders see some time on the field. Next year doesn’t have to be another middle-of-the-pack season.
Pat’s take: Hanover. There are a couple of good answers but I think the best ones in terms of playoff hopes come from the teams that could basically snipe a conference title here at the end of the season. Or snooker, as Keith referred to it on the podcast this week. We can’t say Hanover hasn’t been on the radar this season, because we did think they would take an incremental step forward this season, but this is a team that’s one step away. A win Saturday takes them from last year’s 3-7 to the playoffs.
Keith’s take: Trine. The Thunder could wrap up a 10-0 season and a likely first-round home game with a win over MIAA foe Albion. A loss to the Britons gives them the automatic bid, then sends Trine into the muck: The group of 10 or so one-loss teams who will be hoping their combination of strength of schedule and wins over regionally ranked opponents gets them an at-large bid. Trine has very little to go on there, so they either win and get in and maybe host the Hanover/Franklin winner, or finish an otherwise great season with a thud.