January 27, 2005

The best and worst of 2004

Photo by Todd Allred for D3sports.com

Fans of Division III football don’t need polls, ratings or crackpot formulas to determine the best team. That’s settled each December in the Stagg Bowl. 

But what about the best of everything else? Player? Coach? Game? That’s where we come in.

It’s been a while since Linfield raised the national championship trophy in Salem, and there won’t be another Division III football game for months. To hold you over until fall’s kickoff, and to make sure you remember more than just the champion from the 2004 season, here is our annual batch of superlatives, compiled with help from Gordon Mann, Pat Coleman, Pat Cummings and Mark Simon:

Best play
Narrowing nearly 1,200 games down to a single best play is really impossible. One could sift through highlight reels of each team’s best plays and find odd bounces and amazing occurrences.

Our best play is measured by its significance to the game it took place in and the season as a whole. When Walter Sharp hauled in a fourth-and-12 Josh Welch pass for Mary Hardin-Baylor, it not only gave the Crusaders a 38-35 victory over the premier program in the division, Mount Union. It legitimized the Division III football played in Texas and the American Southwest Conference, and shocked the Purple Raiders, who were expected to make their ninth trip to the Stagg Bowl.

Quite frankly, if P.J. Williams wasn’t run out of bounds on a 55-yard reception with less than a minute left in the Stagg Bowl, or if Mary Hardin-Baylor had somehow overcome the 28-21 Stagg Bowl deficit they faced at the time, Sharp’s catch might have taken a backseat to one made by a receiver on his own team. Williams’ catch-and-run on a short slant kept the Stagg Bowl interesting until the final seconds.

Best regular-season games
Again, the number of worthy candidates is mind-boggling. But our best games aren’t just exciting. They tell us a little something about the team that won.

Wooster’s 64-58 overtime win against Wittenberg on Nov. 6 helped the Scots win their first conference title since 1934, plus finish 10-0 and in the playoffs for the first time in school history. Wooster’s Keith Adams intercepted a Tigers’ pass on the first play of overtime, and then the nation’s most prolific running back, Tony Sutton, ran 13 yards for the winning score.

St. John Fisher’s 45-38 double-overtime win over Ithaca on Sept. 25 foreshadowed a playoff run for the Cardinals. Ithaca fell behind 17-3 at halftime of this game, our second choice, but rallied to take a 31-24 lead with 11 minutes left. St. John Fisher tied the game with 49 seconds left, then after going up 45-38 in the second OT, got what officials called an interception at the 3-yard line by freshman defensive back Stephen Stephnick to end the game. The Cardinals, beaten on a Norwich Hail Mary pass three weeks later, still made the second round of the playoffs.

Best playoff game
We’ve already mentioned the UMHB-Mount Union game and finish, which was tremendous. Occidental’s 42-40 second-round win over Concordia-Moorhead deserved serious consideration in this category as well, as the Tigers led 28-7 before the Cobbers tied it at 28. A mishap on a PAT snap and later a missed two-point conversion were the difference.

But perhaps the most exciting game involved 2004’s cardiac teams, Delaware Valley and St. John Fisher.

The Cardinals took a 20-12 lead on a Mark Robinson TD run with 3:02 left, but the Aggies countered with a touchdown pass and two-point conversion with 1:02 to play. Delaware Valley converted a fourth-and-2 on that drive.

Then St. John Fisher, primarily a running team, passed from their own 32 on third down in the final minute, and the Aggies’ Kevin Bliss picked it off and ran it back to the 26. Quarterback Adam Knoblauch, who had thrown the TD and two-point conversion just minutes before, ran in from 2 yards out with nine seconds left for the 26-20 win. 

Best rivalry game
There were some pretty slim pickings this year. Monmouth blanked Knox and Hampden-Sydney smoked Randolph-Macon. St. John's and St. Thomas finally played on the last week of the season, but the Johnnies won 21-0. Ithaca beat Cortland State 47-22 for the Cortaca Jug.

In Kings Point’s 16-7 win against Coast Guard, DePauw’s 14-7 victory at Wabash and Amherst’s 13-10 triumph against Williams, the teams were all separated by less than a touchdown in the fourth quarter. But they all lacked last-minute drama. No fourth-down passes into the end zone batted down, no two-point conversions that won the game. So we kept looking.

King's-Wilkes matched Richard Jackson and Brett Trichilo, two backs that combined for 11,202 rushing yards in their careers, and it was a 12-6 game, but it still lacked that best-game oomph. We looked at Coe-Cornell, Moravian-Muhlenberg and Wartburg-Luther, and weren’t satisfied. The further we went down the list of rivalries, the emptier we felt.

We say pick your own favorite rivalry game from this year, and let’s move on.

Biggest upset
We consulted the Massey Ratings for suggestions here, but the math didn’t change our minds.

The ratings said that Knox’s 13-10 win against Illinois College was the season’s biggest upset. The Prairie Fire finished 1-9, rated 195 of 212 teams eligible for Massey’s main Division III ratings. Their only victory came against the Blue Boys, who finished 6-4, on Oct. 30.

With a nod to a couple of IIAC upsets (2-8 Dubuque’s 12-7 win over 7-3 Coe and 4-6 Loras’ 31-14 blowout of Wartburg, 8-3 and the conference’s playoff representative), we traveled west — not to mention back to the beginning of the season — for our biggest upset.

Chapman’s 31-28 win over Occidental on Sept. 11 was a small blip on the radar screen at the time. But the Tigers didn’t lose again until Linfield defeated them on Dec. 4, in the national quarterfinals. The independent Panthers finished 4-5.

Occidental, which missed a 39-yard field goal and later fumbled on fourth down in the final 1:08 of the Chapman game, had one of the division’s most magical seasons. The Tigers won two playoff games, the first victories for the SCIAC since Oxy beat St. John’s in 1985, and brought respect to Division III football in Southern California.

Though the Tigers changed quarterbacks along the way, their success made the season-opening flop all the more baffling.

Wildest regular-season shootouts
Three games eclipsed 120 total points this season, including the Wooster-Wittenberg clash we already mentioned. The Scots and Tigers (122 points), as well as Texas Lutheran and Louisiana College (126 points) needed overtime to run up those scores.

Franklin and Olivet only needed regulation to challenge the record for combined points in a game (129, set last season in Coe‘s 66-63 win over Cornell).

Trailing 63-56, Franklin scored with 37 seconds left in the game. In the gutsiest call of the season, the Grizzlies passed up a chance to tie with a PAT and opted to go for two. The pass was tipped away, and the Comets had a victory to show for their 678 yards (which included 591 rushing).

As a consolation, Franklin, we’ll always remember you took part in a game in which 125 points were scored and 1,117 yards were gained. 

Most surprising regular-season blowout
Hardin-Simmons won 49-22 at Mary Hardin-Baylor, which is only surprising considering that the Crusaders won 42-28 at HSU in the playoffs and rolled right into the Stagg Bowl.

Our honorable mention shocker goes to New Jersey, which was 6-1 and in Pool C contention before stumbling 43-0 at Brockport State. The Golden Eagles had already played Salisbury, Ithaca, St. John Fisher, Wesley and Rowan, and weren’t bothered by the Lions.

Wildest playoff shootout
Washington and Jefferson 55, Bridgewater (Va.) 48, 2OT: Marcus Washington returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, and the scoring didn’t stop until Brandon Wakefield’s pass from the 16-yard line in the second overtime went out of the back of the end zone.

In between those Eagles high and lowlights, the Presidents racked up 535 yards. But they led only 27-26 with five minutes left. Bridgewater scored on a halfback pass with 4:47 left, and W&J countered with a 31-yard scoring strike at 1:51. Thirty-two seconds later, the Eagles were in the end zone again, this time on a 52-yard screen. The Presidents scored on a 1-yard run with no time left in regulation following Bridgewater pass interference calls in the end zone.

Most surprising playoff blowout
Some thought we had a pair of sensational semifinals set up, but Linfield manhandled Rowan 52-0, a week after the Profs whomped previously unbeaten Delaware Valley by 49.

Most surprising playoff nail-biter
Aurora, 6-4 and representing the maligned IBFC, appeared to be a sacrificial lamb for then-No. 6 Wooster, 10-0 at the time.

Instead, the Spartans went touchdown-for-touchdown with the Scots, tying the game at 27 in the final five minutes, and driving for another score after Wooster took a late 14-point lead.

Aurora reminded us that every team in the playoffs has some fight in them.

Most bang for the buck
Our ‘resembles an Arena League score’ award goes to Texas Lutheran and its 64-62 four-overtime win at Louisiana College on Oct. 16.

The homestanding Wildcats did not trail in the initial 59:08 of regulation, then had to rally from eight points down to tie the game with two seconds left.

Each team scored a TD in all four of its overtime periods, but Louisiana missed its mandatory two-point conversion attempt in the fourth overtime. Bulldog Ken Gransberry scored on an 18-yard run to tie it, and a Sean Salinas-to-Matt Ross conversion won the game.

Least bang for the buck
Gordon nominated Lebanon Valley 3, Widener 0, blamed it on the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan and filed this punchline: “Leb Val’s closer comes in with two outs and two on in the eighth to preserve the win.”

The Flying Dutchmen avenged a 74-17 loss to the Pioneers in 2003.

Widener, just a few years removed from a 50-49 game with Lycoming and a year removed from a 56-55 shootout with Delaware Valley, played another low-scoring game later in the season. They couldn’t blame their 7-0 win over Lycoming on Nov. 6 on the hurricane that affected the Sept. 18 games.

Hope’s 7-0 win over Adrian Oct. 23 gets ‘least bang’ honorable mention.

Silliest stat line
Months after the fact, Pat Cummings is still thrilled by the numbers from Bridgewater‘s 35-13 win over Shenandoah:

Bridgewater 
Overall: 38 offensive plays for 187 yards 
Passing: 3 completions in 12 attempts with two interceptions 
First downs: 8 
Third down conversions: 0-for-7 
Time of possession: 19:00 

Shenandoah 
Overall: 94 plays for 326 yards 
Passing: 14 completions in 35 attempts with 2 interceptions 
First downs: 25 
Third down conversions: 11-for-24 
Time of possession: 41:00 

Yet Bridgewater won the game by 22 points. 

“And now for what really matters: Bridgewater: 3 kick returns, 101 return yards; 5 punt returns, 130 return yards. This is not a typo. The Eagles had more return yards than total offense. Special teams is a huge part of a football game (I can see the e-mails flowing in now), but it is not the main driving force behind a team’s performance, nor can it be if they are to be competitive. The Eagles tallied 162 punt and kick return yards before touching the ball from the line of scrimmage.”

Personally, I don’t think it reflects poorly on a team’s play if their points come from special teams, but it had to be disappointing for Shenandoah to thoroughly dominate other phases of the game and see that final score.

Season’s turning point
Says Gordon: “We could … say Elliott’s injury against Texas A&M (on Sept. 6, 2003), which set off a string of events changing the landscape of Division III and Division I-A. Linfield got a great QB who (threw 61 touchdown passes), Alex Smith becomes a Heisman candidate and Urban Meyer gets a new job.”

I think Gordon was on the right track. Brett Elliott’s 480-yard, six-touchdown performance against then-No. 7 UW-Stevens Point definitely established him as a star on this level. But it was the team’s turnaround that cemented them as a title contender. In a 21-0 fourth quarter, the Wildcats rallied from down ten to win 46-35.

They only trailed three other times during the season, 10-7 in the second quarter against Whitworth, 24-12 at the half against Southern Oregon and 17-7 in the first quarter of a national semifinal against Occidental. Each time, Linfield drew on the poise and experience exhibited in the comeback against UW-SP and rallied to win going away.

Best moments
For all of Linfield’s offensive prowess — they averaged exactly 50 points per game this season — the Stagg Bowl championship wasn’t wrapped up until fifth-year defensive end Kelley Bertrand brought down Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Josh Welch on fourth-and-4 at the Linfield 19 with 16 seconds left. Teammate Brandon Tom was in on the sack as well, but it was Bertrand who wasn’t supposed to be there at all. 

Five plays into the season opener against Western Oregon, the 6-5, 265-pound Bertrand tore his ACL and partially tore his patella tendon when an opposing player fell on his knee. Against medical advice, Bertrand postponed surgery and stayed active, returning to the Wildcats lineup in Week 6. His Stagg Bowl-ending sack made his sacrifice seem so sweet. 

Honorable mention: Had the Crusaders gone on to win to the title, we would have chosen UMHB’s Welch-to-Sharp TD pass at Mount Union. But that already took best play, so we shared the wealth.

Most difficult circumstances
The father of Delaware Valley’s G.A. Mangus suffered a heart attack midway through the first quarter of a week 6 game against King’s. The elder Mangus was revived and made it to the hospital. The Aggies had been stunned a few weeks before by the loss of offensive line coach Greg Fedick’s father, who died of a heart attack during a bike ride. 

Mangus finished the King’s game while his father recovered, and the Aggies beat the Monarchs on a 33-yard TD pass on fourth-and-10 in the final minute. Perhaps it was in poor taste for a team so affected by cardiac arrest to be assigned the nickname they had this season. Delaware Valley showed admirable character by just making it through the season together, not to mention winning eight games by a touchdown or less.

Farewell
It was the final season of 23 on the sidelines at Emory and Henry for Lou Wacker, who was replaced by Mount Union defensive coordinator Don Montgomery. Aurora coach Jim Scott retired after 19 years and Augsburg’s Jack Osberg relinquished his head coaching duties after 14 seasons. Mike Ketchum coached Guilford for 14 seasons, but put his coaching duties aside to become the Quakers’ assistant AD.

Welcome
During the year, LaGrange (Ga.) and SUNY-Maritime announced their intentions to start Division III football programs. Becker will play its first game this September against Utica.

Bright futures
Predicting the NFL futures of Division III players is consistently one of our least-successful ventures. 

Here’s what we know: Wooster running back Tony Sutton, DePauw wide receiver Jamarcus Shepard and UW-Whitewater defensive back Trey Bell played in the Hula Bowl, while no Division III players were on the East-West Shrine Game, Villages Gridiron Classic or Senior Bowl rosters.

Around the web, mock drafts show Canadian, community college and Arena League players getting picked, but none from Division III. But we have read good things about Wilmington defensive tackle Brandon Tisdale, Mount Union linebacker Shaun Spisak (who projects as a safety) and Concordia-Moorhead wide receiver Andrew Passanante.

It’s also a safe bet that many players from the Aztec Bowl or East Coast Bowl rosters will get a looks as free agents.

Drafting Division III players is fairly rare (we average fewer than one per year over the past decade), but a handful will usually sign on afterward as free agents. The Vikings signed Blake Elliott, last season’s Gagliardi award winner. The Raiders made Ryan Hoag, a wide receiver from Gustavus Adolphus, the last pick of the 2003 draft. Hoag is also the last to be drafted out of Division III.

Sometimes the brightest futures for Division III athletes come off the field. New Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage was a quarterback at Sewanee from 1983-86. Richard Nixon played little for Whittier, but he became president. And of course, Patriots coach Bill Belichick played at Wesleyan.

Best player
Before the playoffs, we might have given this award to Wooster’s Tony Sutton, who twice had more than 300 all-purpose yards in a game, and finished as the nation’s rushing leader (186.7 yards per game), scoring leader (16.5 points per game) and all-purpose yards leader (219.5 per game). 

The postseason, however, swayed us toward Linfield’s Brett Elliott, who not only had four games this season with more than 450 yards passing, but knifed up some of the nation’s top teams in leading his team to a national championship.

Best one-man show
For someone off the main stage, Mark Simon liked Kings Point’s Jason Hardwick. The junior running back’s 150-yard per game average was ninth in the nation, but he ended the season on a tremendous roll. He rushed 55 times for 300 yards in a 37-20 loss to RPI, then followed that up with a 47-carry, 252-yard, five-touchdown game in a 33-27 overtime victory against St. Lawrence. Hardwick carried 45 times for 277 yards in the season-ending win over Coast Guard. That’s 829 yards in three consecutive games.

Of course, we tip our hats to Hardwick’s offensive line as well, but he still qualifies for our one-man show award.

Best two-man show
Albright quarterback John Port led the nation’s second-best passing offense behind Linfield, and the seventh-most prolific unit overall. Port was third in total offense and seventh in passing efficiency, and a lot of those gaudy numbers were due to the man on the other end of quite a few of his passes. Receiver Nick Cushman led the country with 9.2 receptions and 152.9 yards per game. Together, the pair helped the Lions to a 40-point per game offensive output and an 8-3 mark.

Best single-game offensive performance, player
Since we’ve already mentioned Elliott’s game against Stevens Point, and since his team was an offensive machine before he arrived, here are a few outrageous games that may have gone unnoticed nationally: 

North Central receiver Tyke Spencer hauled in 14 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-28 win over Washington U. But that might not have even been the best receiving performance. Tufts’ Kevin Holland had 22 receptions for 202 yards in a 14-12 loss to Bowdoin.

But the top performance of the season goes to Augustana quarterback Matt Roe, who nearly willed the Vikings into the playoffs by rushing for 342 yards and three scores in a 39-38 loss to Wheaton on the final Saturday of the season. Roe’s 20-yard run with 2:46 left put Augustana up 38-31, but Wheaton drove 68 yards in nine plays to score, then capped it off with a 2-point conversion that turned out to be the game-winner. Still, we expect quarterbacks to go over three bills through the air, not on the ground.

Best single-game offensive performance, team
Wooster rolled up 84 points and 791 yards against Kenyon, but the gaudiest performance isn’t necessarily the best. How did good offensive teams fare when they went against great defenses? 

Occidental ran up 42 points on Concordia-Moorhead in the postseason, though the Cobbers allowed just 11 points per game in their other 11 outings. St. John Fisher lit up two great defenses, scoring 45 of the 170 that Springfield allowed all season, then hanging 31 on Muhlenberg in the playoffs. The Mules entered that game as the statistical No. 1 defense in the land.

But we have to go back to Alliance for our single-most impressive game. Mary Hardin-Baylor scored 38 on Mount Union, which only let two other opponents score more than 10. The Crusaders consistently gashed the Purple Raider defense for long gains running up the middle. Trailing in the fourth period, they were still patient enough to run the ball, and threw efficiently when necessary. They made Mount Union’s vaunted defense look, well, pedestrian.

Best single-game defensive performance, player
North Park junior defensive back Tim Rotenberry made 21 solo tackles against Millikin, two weeks after making 18 against Augustana. 

Maybe Brian Short, a senior linebacker from Illinois College, had a little more help. He posted 24 total tackles against Knox, and 23 a week later against Beloit.

Usually when a player makes that many tackles, assisted or not, a team isn’t winning. Rotenberry and co. went 1-9, losing both of his big-tackle games. Though the Blue Boys lost 13-10 to the Prairie Fire, Short contributed to a 20-6 win over the Buccaneers.

Honorable mention: North Central’s Ben Hare had seven solo tackles for losses in a Sep. 18 win over Augsburg. 

Most eye-opening offensive stat
Fourteen teams scored in the 70s this season, and landed on each possible score except 71. From 0-79 this season, at least one team finished with every score except 1, which is impossible, 4 and 71.

Most telling defensive stat
Maybe defenses don’t put as many fans in the seats as high-octane offenses, but they generate wins.

Of the nation’s top 40 total defenses, only No. 34 Loras (4-6) had a losing record. Only Nos. 28 (5-5 Simpson) and 32 (4-4 Montclair State) were .500.

Of the nation’s top 40 scoring defenses, only No. 34 Simpson and No. 40 Tufts (2-6) didn’t have winning records.

Six weirdest stats
> Heidelberg had 744 more yards in punts (2,963) than total offense (2,219)
> Springfield scored 401 points, including 10 on five safeties.
> No one kicked a field goal in eight games against Trinity (Conn.)
> Wittenberg had the nation’s best punting average by almost three yards at 40.81, yet no team among the 75 best punted less often than the Tigers’ 32.
> Benedictine was ranked 222nd in the nation in total offense, total defense and rushing defense.
> The American Southwest Conference had five teams ranked among the nation’s top 20 offenses, and eight of the 30 worst defenses, by total yardage.

Best regular-season coach
We’ve got to go with G.A. Mangus again. Last season, we were impressed that he turned also-rans into winners. This time around, Delaware Valley wasn’t dominant and they didn’t creep up on anyone, but they won every which way. In the Aggies’ 10 regular-season games, the team may have been average for most of the game, but they were cool in the clutch, 8-0 in games decided by a TD or less.

If being a good football coach is part X’s and O’s, part getting the most out of your players, Mangus did that in 2004.

Best coach in the first half of the regular season
Moravian was just 3-7 last season, but Scot Dapp’s Greyhounds won their first seven games behind a consistent rushing offense, solid special teams and opportunistic play. They were consistent, scoring in the 30s in seven of their first nine. The wheels fell off as the Greyhounds finished 7-4, but their undefeated start was just as unexpected as their late-season fade.

Best coach in the second half of the season
Mike Hollway’s Battling Bishops lost their first four games — one by a point, two by a field goal and another in which they surrendered 78 points. Hollway got Ohio Wesleyan to forget about all of that and embark on a five-game win streak highlighted by a home win over conference power Wittenberg on Oct. 30. Although the Bishops headed into the finale with a chance at a winning record, unbeaten Wooster stopped that train in a 24-6 win.

Still, we’ve got to reserve recognition for a coach who can get his team up off the mat even when it appeared there was little hope for a positive season.

Best postseason coach
It’s hard to overlook Occidental’s Dale Widolff, who won two playoff games in the rough West bracket, or Linfield’s Jay Locey, whose team won the championship.

But no team traveled a tougher road than Mary Hardin-Baylor, and we can’t imagine it could have been handled better. By getting into the playoffs without an automatic bid, through Pool C, the Crusaders played their five playoff games on the road. UMHB’s postseason win at Trinity (Texas) was the first in school history. Then they walloped Hardin-Simmons, who had beaten them soundly earlier in the year. They glazed over the thought that a Texas team can’t win in the cold weather by going to Pennsylvania and running roughshod over unbeaten Washington and Jefferson. They played it cool in the snow and rallied in the fourth quarter at Mount Union.

Even after a special-teams mishap appeared to doom the Crusaders late in the Stagg Bowl, UMHB charged right down the field in the final minute, leading to one of the Stagg Bowl’s most dramatic finishes.

Through it all, Fredenburg and his staff played the game their way — on the ground, full-speed ahead — and handled themselves with class.

Best performances by rookie head coaches
Two coaches deserve consideration here:

Mike Turk, a former walk-on quarterback and longtime assistant coach at Troy State, got Huntingdon competitive in a hurry. The second-year program was 0-7 in its first season under Duane Trogdon, but surged to 4-5 in 2004, including four wins in their final five games.

Jack Ginn, an Emory and Henry graduate and former Wartburg assistant, guided North Carolina Wesleyan to a 4-4 record in its inaugural season. 

Best independent
Although Rockford posted its second consecutive 7-3 season, Westminster (Mo.) beat the Regents 20-7 and avenged one of their only losses in a second meeting with Martin Luther. The Blue Jays’ other losses came against 7-3 Coe and at 6-4 Washington U.

All the independents can smile. Each won at least one game, while Division III’s established conferences produced six winless teams.

Surprise team that didn’t make the playoffs
With six road games, Marietta managed a 6-4 finish that included a late-season 26-0 victory over Baldwin-Wallace. The Pioneers’ losses came against teams with a combined 33-10 record. Perhaps the school known for its baseball success will become the next to make a run at Mount Union’s OAC football dominance.

Surprise playoff teams
The biggest surprise was Muhlenberg, since it did not have the Centennial Conference’s best overall record and got lost among Johns Hopkins, McDaniel, Franklin and Marshall and Dickinson, which all had a chance to win the league title. But at least the Mules had 14 points in our preseason poll.

Six playoff teams (Carthage, Occidental, Alma, Hobart, Mt. St. Joseph and Aurora) did not receive a single vote in the preseason poll. Of those, Carthage, Occidental and Hobart won in the postseason.

Took a step forward
Gordon suggested Shenandoah, which he said “has got a great thing going in Winchester, Va. – great stadium, good fan support, a school administration that seems supportive and a team that was very respectable in its first round playoff loss at Delaware Valley.” 

Honorable mention: Salisbury, Carthage, Occidental.

Took a step back
Lycoming, coached by the well-respected Frank Girardi (241-74-5 in his 32 seasons with the Warriors prior to this one) bottomed out. After 29 consecutive winning campaigns and a trip to the NCAA quarterfinals in 2003, Lycoming finished 3-7.

East Texas Baptist, the ASC’s playoff representative last year, was at its worst as Texas Lutheran quarterback Sean Salinas threw for 519 yards on the Tigers Oct. 9, after Howard Payne’s Adam King passed for 512 on Sept. 18.

One-year wonders
It’s actually been three years on the radar now, but there’s a possibility that the gig is up for Wooster as they tackle life without Tony Sutton. Perhaps a playoff appearance generated enough momentum in recruiting to balance the team and sustain the success.

We think it will be hard for St. John Fisher to duplicate the success they had this season in close games. Though most of their offensive weapons are back, they’ll graduate quarterback Curt Fitzpatrick and five of their top six tacklers on defense.

Next big thing
If Texas Lutheran can come up with some defense to match its offense, it could be the next ASC team to do accomplish something special. The 7-3 Bulldogs’ losses this year were to teams with a combined record of 31-5, including runner-up Mary Hardin-Baylor. But the Bulldogs, who won seven in a row starting on Sept. 25, had three victories by less than a touchdown. They scored 37.5 points per game, but gave up 28 or more seven times, including 62, 59 and 41.

Comeback kids
Delaware Valley and St. John Fisher made names for themselves in the fourth quarter and overtime this season, but they were outdone when it came to getting behind and still winning. Norwich won its first three games with fourth quarter comebacks, beat Fisher on a hail mary with no time left, and rallied in overtime to beat Hartwick.

Most overhyped
Hampden-Sydney was given more credit than it was due, though the Tigers never hyped themselves. We did it. The AFCA voters did it even more. Actually, Touchdown Illustrated, which ranked them No. 1 in the preseason, did its fair share. See our ‘glass ceiling award’ below for more on the Tigers

Honorable mention: Springfield (our preseason No. 5 that finished unranked); the phrase “walnut and bronze.” 

Most underappreciated
The strength of the Northwest Conference wasn’t respected enough this season, even though we put it as our third-best in our conference rankings. Quite honestly, the NWC may be the best conference. Two of its teams have won national championships since the playoffs expanded to 28 teams in 1999, and four have made the playoffs. This season, the six-team conference was 24-6 against teams from outside the NWC, and Linfield had little trouble in the playoffs.

We got these right
In our 16 surprises to not be surprised by on Oct. 21, we told you there would be playoff games held in North Dakota and Southern California, only one OAC team would make the postseason and LaGrange would add football.

Our preseason top 25 also gave votes to 22 of the 28 playoff teams. Of our top 17, eight won conference titles and two more made the playoffs in Pool C.

Pat Coleman was one of three preseason pollsters who had Linfield ranked No. 1, and by week 3, that number had grown to five voters. Six pollsters had them at the top by playoff time, but the rest of us didn’t come around until after Mount Union lost.

We got these wrong
Mark Simon touted Occidental quarterback Justin Elway in a Sept. 9 feature. Elway, the most famous Division III relative of a great pro since Casey Urlacher was at Lake Forest, was eventually supplanted by Andy Collins and quit the team that finished as one of the last eight standing.

Also, just so Pat Coleman doesn’t get a big head for going with Linfield from day one, he also liked Muhlenberg to win the East bracket (Around the Nation, Nov. 18). They were beaten by 28 points.

In addition, Montclair State, Lycoming, RPI and East Texas Baptist all started the season in the top 25. Only RPI (5-4) finished with a winning record, meaning pollsters could learn their lesson about voting strictly on the prior year’s performance.

Most painful playoff score comparison
Each season, a thread of scores in the playoff bracket get us wondering what would have happened if the matchups had been different. If comparing scores tell us anything, a Linfield-Muhlenberg clash would not have been much of one.

The Mules lost to St. John Fisher 31-3 in the first round. The Cardinals lost to Delaware Valley 26-20, and the Aggies lost to Rowan 56-7. Rowan lost to Linfield 52-0. So our score comparison thinks the Wildcats are 135 points better than the Mules?

Best postseason conference showing
Gordon takes this one: The ASC gets to its first Stagg Bowl via its runner-up, which beats champs of the SCAC, OAC and PAC along the way. I also give ‘props’ to the SCIAC. The Tigers got the conference a playoff win and then knocked off Concordia-Moorhead before running into the Brett Elliott buzzsaw. It was a nice step forward after Redlands’ recent competitive playoff showings.

Worst postseason conference showing
Gordon, again: The NEFC is an easy target given the playoff loss coupled with the ECAC woes. But Centennial Conference representative Muhlenberg got pummeled by St. John Fisher and never showed the highly touted defense that tricked Pat into picking them to win the East.

Biggest surprise in Salem
Pat Coleman was impressed by how well the two teams' fans traveled to the game, even though neither school is within 1,200 miles of Salem. That and good weather helped the attendance come in at 3,240, about 15% higher than projections made 24 hours before kickoff. 

Biggest disappointment in Salem
Pat Coleman was disappointed by the disrespectful preview given to the game by ESPN2 the night before at halftime of the Division I-AA championship. Apparently if Mount Union or St. John's are not in the game, ESPN has no idea what to talk about, so they interview locals about where the two schools are from. That had to have prompted some phone calls from Indianapolis to Bristol, Conn.

Most pathetic moment
Pat Coleman and I have made it a habit to find the Saturday night 80s-music radio shows on the way back to Northern Virginia during our annual December trip to Alliance (shut up, it makes the trip go by faster). On the way back this year, Pat and I wracked our brains trying to figure out what song made Kajagoogoo famous. By the time we got in range of WINC 92.5 (Winchester, Va.), Pat decided to call and ask the deejay to refresh our memories.

We ended up getting a very dorky shout-out from the guy, who went out of his way to make us sound silly for forgetting Too shy, even though he had to look it up himself.

Alumni awards
If we’d given this out last year, it would have gone to K.C. Keeler, the longtime Rowan coach who won a I-AA championship with Delaware. This year’s I-AA champion, James Madison, is a Division III alum itself. The Dukes were down with us from 1977-79.

Ed Meierkort, UW-Stout coach from 1993-2003, led Division II South Dakota to a 9-2 mark and a No. 16 ranking. Also in Division II, former Widener head coach Bill Zwaan led West Chester to the national semifinals, where the Golden Rams lost to eventual champion Valdosta State.

The crazy schedule award
Brockport State played six teams that finished with seven wins or more, including three 10-win playoff teams. Their opponents combined record was 68-37 (.647). On the bright side, the Golden Eagles did play six home games.

The glass ceiling award
Hampden-Sydney can break into the polls’ top 15, but they can’t get past Bridgewater and earn the ODAC’s automatic bid. The Tigers upgraded their schedule this season in hopes of getting in through Pool C at 9-1, but Johns Hopkins beat the Tigers on Nov. 6, and H-SC finished 8-2.

The ‘wish we’d gone to 32 teams this year’ awards
Monmouth was 9-1, but left out of the playoffs in favor of 8-2 Christopher Newport (whose losses came by a total of five points to two other playoff teams). Carthage and UMHB also made it in Pool C, and all three won at least one game. But in a 32-team field, the Scots would have had a chance to join the party.

We bet Ohio Northern, Ithaca, DePauw, Wesley, Johns Hopkins, Albright and others would have liked their chances to make the field with four more open spots.

The ‘Wish you were here’ award
Well, Trinity (Conn.), you can’t participate in the playoffs, but you can take this award for the second straight season. I know, your 22-game winning streak is much cooler than two straight ‘wish you were here’ awards. We want to see how other teams stack up against the Bantams, and not just because they haven’t lost since the second game of the 2002 season. They also boasted the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, allowing 6.5 points per game.

Thanks for everything
Mary Hardin-Baylor should mail thank-yous to the selection committee, who saw fit to include the Crusaders in Pool C after they failed to earn an automatic bid by winning the ASC. And the committee should send thank-yous right back, as UMHB made them look good by going all the way to the Stagg Bowl.

Thanks for nothing
Pat Coleman: CSTV's Division III football coverage went from a live regular-season game and a postseason game in 2003 to a tape-delayed game between two playoff-ineligible teams in 2004. Here we thought we had an ally in covering small-school football, but in the end, CSTV bowed down at the altar of Division I-A football and left Division III in the dumpster. Guess we'll have to hope for ESPNU to throw us a bone. 

Next year, this should be changed
There is one very significant change already slated for next season, expanding the playoffs from 28 to 32 teams, so we’re satisfied. That means no more first-round byes for top seeds, and no more Pools B or C. There will be 21 automatic bids for conference winners and 11 at-large participants selected from the remaining teams.

Of course, we still find the NESCAC’s refusal to participate in the playoffs absurd, especially given that teams in other sports from the same schools can take part. Besides, if players on teams from supposedly academically inferior institutions can manage one to five weeks of playoff football and not fail out of school, we think the NESCAC kids can handle it.

On one hand, it’s nice that the teams are holding up tradition and playing just to play. But If participating in the playoffs means we’re putting too much of an emphasis on winning, then perhaps we shouldn’t even keep score. Maybe there should be no varsity, just intramurals or pickup games.

Someday, we’ll get over that. Until then, thanks for following another year of Division III football with Around the Nation and D3football.com.

Send us feedback
As always, we’d be happy to have you share your thoughts with us, and in some cases the rest of our readers.

Reach Around the Nation by sending e-mail to keith@d3football.com or using our feedback form.

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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for D3hoops.com. He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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