ATN Podcast 270: Crowning a new champion

In other Division III sports, we often get to see schools experience the national championship event for the first time, and often get to see them come away a winner. In football, however, we haven’t had too much of that. Mount Union, UW-Whitewater and Mary Hardin-Baylor have combined to win the previous 14 Stagg Bowls.

But on Friday night in Shenandoah, Texas, we got something new, something decidedly less purple, as North Central brought a new program to the Stagg Bowl, with new back stories and histories. And the Cardinals came away emphatically as champions, defeating UW-Whitewater 41-14.

In this podcast, Pat, Keith, Frank Rossi and Greg Thomas wrap up the game and wrap up the season. You can hear the debate and how we arrived at giving our three year-end awards to members of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. Plus, you’ll hear the emotion in a proud dad’s voice, a son who wanted to get his dad to hold the trophy, and a most outstanding player who tried to give his trophy away.

Plus, who should be No. 2? UW-Whitewater? Mount Union? Wheaton? Pat and Keith and Frank and Greg discuss that and more in Podcast 270. It’s the final podcast of 2019.

This edition of the Around the Nation podcast is sponsored by Gotta Have It: 3D Fan Foam Wall Signs for the D-III fan in your life.

Pat and Keith talk about it all in the latest Around the Nation Podcast. The Around the Nation Podcast is a regular conversation between Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan and guests covering the wide range of Division III football.

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Theme music: DJmentos. photos by Caleb Williams, Doug Sasse, Tom Nettleton, file.


Quick Hits: Predictions for Stagg Bowl XLVII

Welcome to Championship Friday! The national championship feels like an occasion to not just make our Hits a little less Quick, but also bring in some additional experts to give their takes on Stagg Bowl XLVII. The Quick Hits team has been making these predictions ever since 1999, when our panel correctly picked what everyone in Division III thought was an upset — Pacific Lutheran over Rowan. Last year the panel correctly picked Mary Hardin-Baylor in a 6-2 decision over Mount Union.

Nobody consulted with one another. Feel free to add your pick and reasoning in the comments section below.

Pat Coleman, publisher and executive editor

It was fun last week to watch UW-Whitewater quarterback Max Meylor have a breakout game actually running the ball on a big stage. It was reminiscent of a couple of Broc Rutter runs in key spots in the second-round game at Mount Union. The Cardinals have the edge there, with the guy who handles the ball on every snap. Ethan Greenfield should be able to get enough yards on the ground to allow North Central to keep running the ball and not be one-dimensional. The Cardinals have faced quality front sevens on defense the past three weeks in the playoffs and Whitewater will surely be better, but not outlandishly better. (Plus, North Central saw Wheaton.) Now, UW-Whitewater surely has seen the Wheaton-North Central game on video as well, so the question is, how much did the Cardinals learn from that game, and how much will be applied to this championship? How much better is the UW-Whitewater secondary than the Mount Union secondary, for example, and how will the Warhawks defend Andrew Kamienski, the most prolific touchdown-scoring receiver in NCAA Division III history? And if DeAngelo Hardy can’t go, what second or third receiver will Rutter be able to rely on to make big catches in key spots? Will North Central’s defensive front be more like it was in the closing minutes against Mount Union, where it made D’Angelo Fulford go down, rush his reads and make mistakes? Will Meylor have time to find secondary receivers, and find the mid-range receivers who are open while others are in tighter coverage down the field? Perhaps deep down inside, our desire to see parity and variety within Division III football leads us to see red and white on this subject. After pondering that, I will try to fight against that urge, even though it may be imaginary.
UW-Whitewater 30, North Central 28.

Keith McMillan, national columnist and managing editor emeritus

Friday’s Stagg Bowl has been a long time coming for North Central, which has 17 playoff wins in 12 appearances since 2005, and for post-Lance Leipold UW-Whitewater. No matter the outcome, it’s an achievement, not a failure, for both programs. But let’s start here: North Central has faced four of the statistically most-impressive defenses in D-III during its run, and scored between 21 and 59. Maybe Whitewater is better than them all, and last week’s 7 sacks are encouraging, but let’s pencil Broc Rutter and friends in for at least two dozen points. Then the question becomes whether the Warhawk can score enough to keep pace. People around the North Central program say if the team had a weakness earlier in the season, it was the defensive backs. If that’s where the opening is, it would mean Max Meylor would have to push the ball up the field uncharacteristically, to JT Parish, Derek Kumerow and Ryan Wisniewski, et al. Whitewater is also great along the lines, but North Central is also good there and should be able to put up enough of a fight to keep from being overpowered. Which leads me to this predicted final:
North Central 38, UW-Whitewater 28

Adam Turer, Around the Nation columnist

You’d think North Central’s offense is unstoppable, but they’ve been stopped before. UW-Whitewater has the blueprint, courtesy of Wheaton. The Cardinals offense has taken its game to a new level since that Week 5 loss to its CCIW rival, but can be stopped. No other challenger has been able to slow, yet alone stop, this potent and well-rounded attack. But if anyone can do it, it’s the Warhawks. Surprisingly, it wasn’t UW-Whitewater’s defense that keyed the semifinal win on Saturday–they gave up a season-high 32 points to St. John’s. The Johnnies rushed for just 21 yards. The Cardinals have a much stronger rushing attack. The athleticism and versatility of the offensive line will present the biggest challenge these Warhawks have faced. But this UW-Whitewater defense has proven that it can impose its will and control the pace of the game, or make big plays when its back is against the wall. First down will be huge in this game. If the Cardinals can get Ethan Greenfield six or seven yards to keep the chains moving and avoid third-and-long, Broc Rutter will have the Warhawks right where he wants them. The Warhawks need to stop the run but can’t load the box because Rutter and Andrew Kamienski will make them pay. Can the Whitewater offense play keep-away like it did against Mary Hardin-Baylor? North Central’s run defense will need to play its best game of the season and get the ball back in Rutter’s hands as often as possible. I’ve been doubting the Warhawks the past two weeks, and Max Meylor and company have proven me wrong. They have a chance to do it one more time. We’ve seen a total of 69 points in the past three Stagg Bowls combined. This game will come close to topping that, with the nation’s second-most prolific offense getting past one of the nation’s best defenses for the fourth straight week. A new champion will be crowned.
North Central 38, UW-Whitewater 24

Ryan Tipps, senior editor

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Well, I’ve been fooled the past two weeks by how good UW-Whitewater really is. First I didn’t think they could handle the bruising play of UMHB — they did it. Then I didn’t think they could overcome the St. John’s passing game — which they did well enough to earn the victory. On both sides of the ball there is a depth to UW-W’s team — one that’s able to sustain drives when it’s crucial or make the big stops when needed — that is reminiscent of the Stagg Bowl teams I’ve seen often. So what’s my hangup here? I can’t get past all of the weapons that North Central brings to the table: The whole skillset of Broc Rutter/Andrew Kamienski/Ethan Greenfield is something to behold, one with amazing balance in its play. Factor in the offensive line and a few other playmakers on the field, and this game will be defined more by points than it will be by defensive stands. Each team has been well-tested, each took down a team receiving No. 1 votes, each faced a setback during the regular season, only to bounce back stronger, better, and more determined than ever. It’s rare that Pool C bids prove so vigorously why we have the at-large system in the first place.
North Central 34, UW-Whitewater 28

Frank Rossi, Stagg Bowl sideline reporter

I was forbidden from picking North Central by families of the players. Warhawks fans have done the same. But I can’t pick the game to end in a tie. So, here we go…
Whitewater’s size up front on offense was touted by Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defense as a difference-maker. Coach Thorne admitted to me that although the size is akin to that of Wheaton, Wabash, and others, he believes the tough part of Whitewater’s OLine is the skill mixed with the size that they possess. That means that Whitewater may be able to employ a mix between their UMHB and St. John’s game plans, in trying to slow down the game, eat clock, and trust in Miler’s dual threat for efficiency. Will Whitewater be able to shut down Rutter? Absolutely not. Like with Erdmann last weekend, they will be able to contain him from time to time, enough to gain some level of control of the game flow. On the flip side, the “no-name” defense of NCC definitely acquired more of a name last week against Muhlenberg — and that unit becomes a bit of a wild card here. My guess is that the three-headed rushing attack (including Meylor’s ability to run) is going to eventually allow Meylor’s passing to work by halftime. Diversity in offense and efficiency in that diversity are things that defenses struggle with — it becomes a guessing game, and it’s tough to nail the coin toss three times in a row multiple times.
North Central is an excellent team. But Whitewater’s size, experience, and powerful rushing attack will ultimately wear down the Cardinals and help the Warhawks control the game in a very good, close affair
UW-Whitewater 30, North Central 25.

Greg Thomas, contributor and bracketology consultant

This has been a tremendous postseason for both of our championship participants. UW-Whitewater has bounced back from a season ending loss to Oshkosh to rattle off four impressive wins, including their decisive elimination of the defending champions. North Central won the game of the tournament (in a tournament full of games of the tournament) at Mount Union and in doing so kept the Purple Raiders out of the final four for the first time in a quarter century. We’ve seen Whitewater win with some different styles of play. They went full PTR against UMHB and just played a perfect game of keep away from the Cru, then opened up their offense a bit more last week in a bit of a shootout with St. John’s. There are more layers to this Warhawk team than I think most people see. On the other side, North Central’s offense has received all of the attention (rightly so), but North Central’s defense has been up to the task holding their last two opponents to just 14 points apiece. If UW-Whitewater is going to win tonight, it’s going to have to look like their win against UMHB with the Warhawk offense spending huge swaths of time on the field with a running clock. If North Central can avoid short drives and give Rutter ample opportunities, I’m not sure there’s a defense in the division that can avoid getting overwhelmed.
North Central 35, UW-Whitewater 31.

Brady Grayvold, 2014 All-American UW-Whitewater cornerback

Here we are again in December with the pinnacle of Division III football about to be played on a late December evening. The matchup between UW-Whitewater and North Central is incredibly intriguing. North Central has a quarterback that many agree is amongst the best that this level has to offer. Admittedly, North Central head coach Jeff Thorne wants to run the football and be a run first program that sets up the pass. UW-Whitewater has strung together an impressive three week run of playoff wins knocking off the former Gagliardi Trophy winner and defending national champion UMHB at the Cruthedral. Coach Bullis and his players have come close to winning it all in recent years, but UWW has not won the Stagg Bowl since 2014. North Central has never been to a title game and would love to go one for one in appearances and titles. This matchup will come down to two things: how well each team can defend the run and who turns the ball over the fewest times. At the end of the day, one program wants to pound the rock, and the other will always Pound the Rock.
UW-Whitewater 38, North Central 28

Gary Douglas, UW-Whitewater play-by-play KOOL 106.5/Whitewater

Despite their close proximity, these two upper Midwest football powers have met only twice, 2007 in the second round and the 2010 quarterfinals. Many long time Warhawk and Cardinal fans will remember the second meeting, a 20-10 win at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium by eventual National Champion Whitewater as one of the best Division Three games in recent memory. NCC boasts a Gagliardi finalist quarterback, record setting wide receiver and running back and a stellar defense. UW-W didn’t necessarily receive a “wake up call” after the regular season ending loss at Oshkosh, but certainly is playing “more aggressive” football in the post season and quarterback Max Meylor has found his stride. The Cardinals didn’t suffer a letdown after the upset win at Alliance. While the Warhawks, after impressive wins over the ‘Cru and Johnnies might be playing their best football of the season. This should be a classic match up of two physical, no-nonsense football teams. Who blinks first? Enjoy this one:
UW-Whitewater 27, North Central 24.

Steve Hlavac, former North Central wide receiver

As a North Central alum who lost to Whitewater in the playoffs in ‘07 and ‘10, I think I speak for all of my fellow Cardinals when I say this matchup means a little more. Obviously, nothing would be more satisfying than winning a national championship, regardless of the opponent, but beating BOTH purple powers in one season? They have gotten what you might call redemption for our ’13 alum against Mount Union in the most significant victory in North Central history. Now they have a chance to do the same for the ’07 and ’10 teams against Whitewater in the National Championship. I know it might not have much to do with the current teams and their players, but for North Central Alum and fans, it will undoubtedly make a victory that much more sweet. While I believe North Central is the better team this year, this is the National Championship- uncharted territory for the Cardinals, a shorter prep week, and an opponent who is extremely talented, well coached and has been here many times before. As in most championship football games, the game is usually won or lost at the line of scrimmage, and I think that is absolutely the case in this week’s matchup. Although I am clearly biased (and maybe still just a  tad bitter from 2010), I believe the only way Whitewater can win this game is if their stud defensive ends repeat what they did against St. Johns. They need multiple sacks and a few turnovers to slow down North Central’s firepower. If North Central can get the running game going and control the line of scrimmage, they may win by multiple scores. To add, North Central’s defense seems to be peaking at just the right time. I know Whitewater is going to be well coached and well prepared, I just believe North Central’s offense is simply too special this year. My prediction:
North Central 42, UW-Whitewater 27

Grant Sabo, North Central alumnus and color analyst for NCTV-17

This Stagg Bowl features a very exciting match up of strength on strength on both sides of the ball. The UWW defense is as formidable a unit as the vaunted North Central offense has faced. While there may have been some better defenses that the Cardinals have seen statistically, there is some noise in the numbers due to the overall strength of the WIAC. Whitewater has had great success rushing four and getting pressure on opposing QBs. This frees up their linebackers to handle North Central’s rushing attack. Of course, NCC will get their points, but I think it will be their lowest total since the Wheaton game. On the opposite side of the ball, NCC will rely on its 18th ranked run defense to slow down the multifaceted ground attack of Pound-The-Rock U. The fact that Whitewater favors the rush, however, plays right into NCC’s hands. Not neglecting the fact that this is NCC’s first time to the Stagg Bowl while UWW feels nice and cozy here, a mistake free game by the Cardinals leads to the Walnut and Bronze coming home to Naperville.
North Central 27, UW-Whitewater 14.


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.