October 6, 2005

Two good games, one great trip

Next week, Around the Nation will take its traditional look at all two dozen-plus conference races, identifying key games and pointing out probable winners.

But I can tell you right now we won’t have anything conclusive on the WIAC or CCIW.

After this weekend’s trip to see UW-Eau Claire play at UW-Whitewater, then North Central hosting Wheaton later that evening, I came to a few conclusions:

The conferences are home to some of Division III’s nicest facilities. A difference in level of play in the two conferences is not really noticeable to the naked eye. And at least half of the teams in each eight-team league can consider themselves conference title contenders.

This year as much as any, coaches in both conferences will harp on a shared philosophy.

“If you don’t come to play every week,” says Mike Swider of the CCIW’s Wheaton, “you’re going to get beat.”

On what appeared to be an off day for a talented offense Saturday, Whitewater put up a pretty good fight against a good-looking defense for then-No. 19 Eau Claire. If not for the two turnovers the Blugolds forced inside the 5-yard line, the Warhawks’ 28-7 win could have been 42-7.

The scariest part? Even purple-clad onlookers at Perkins Stadium are still convinced that UW-La Crosse and UW-Stevens Point are the conference’s teams to beat.

“This is what the WIAC is all about, though,” said Warhawks coach Bob Berezowitz, assuming nothing after his team’s victory. “(Today) taught our players again that we have to play four quarters in this league.”

This is basically as much of UW-Whitewater's stadium as we could fit into one shot, but it seats 13,500.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3sports.com

Whitewater didn’t get much resistance from its non-conference opponents, which it outscored 152-39. Warhawks starters played the whole game for the first time this year on Saturday. The story is similar for other WIAC teams, 14-9 out of conference, with games against Division I-AA, II and NAIA opponents. Against Division III opponents, the WIAC is 10-4, with losses to No. 1 Linfield, No. 4 Hardin-Simmons, No. 7 St. John's and the CCIW’s Augustana.

The Vikings’ loss on a two-point conversion against Wheaton in last year’s season finale kept them from the playoffs, and CCIW champion Carthage and the runner-up Thunder each won a first-round playoff game. This year, Augustana was one of only two conference teams that did not start 3-0, but they should battle North Central, Wheaton, Carthage and possibly Millikin for the conference championship.

North Central’s win over Wheaton on Saturday night gave the Cardinals the Little Brass Bell trophy, and a lot of national respect. North Central moved into the Top 25 afterward, but had trailed 20-7 in the second half and survived a Thunder two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game in the final minutes.

“We just take it one week at a time,” said North Central quarterback Kam Kniss, who threw four TD passes in the final 17 minutes on Saturday.

Kniss, like top receiver Tyke Spencer, did not play against Wheaton in last season’s 17-7 road loss. “Three hundred and sixty-five days is a long time to wait,” he said.

Though the Cardinals beat Augustana 31-10 in 2004, their 7-3 record included a three-point defeat at Carthage and a two-point loss at Millikin.

Last year’s Vikings were 7-1 before closing the season with the losses to North Central and Wheaton. The Thunder lost 39-21 at Carthage, while the Redmen lost 35-0 at Augustana.

They went dancin'
The leagues' playoff representatives since they first received automatic bids starting in 1999:
1999 UW-Stevens Point, UW-La Crosse
2000 UW-Stout
2001 UW-Stevens Point
2002 UW-La Crosse
2003 UW-La Crosse
2004 UW-La Crosse
1999 Augustana
2000 Millikin
2001 Augustana
2002 Wheaton
2003 Wheaton
2004 Carthage,

The CCIW’s competitiveness didn’t hurt the conference’s playoff chances last year. Everyone could get a few shots in and take a few this year as well. Three playoff teams is probably too much to ask, but with the unbeaten starts, there’s at least one possible scenario involving three 9-1 teams. Right now, Carthage, Elmhurst and North Central are 4-0, while Wheaton, Augustana, Millikin and North Park are 3-1.

Because some teams scheduled such difficult early-season competition, the records in the WIAC aren’t as gaudy. Eau Claire, Stevens Point and UW-Platteville are each 1-3, but not considered easy wins by any stretch. And while Whitewater is currently No. 8 in the nation, La Crosse 12th and Stout 23rd, Berezowitz knows midseason rankings fluctuate quickly.

“Sometimes the guys are on your Web site too much,” he says of his team, half-jokingly. “I tell them ‘you can read it, but you’d better not believe it.’ It doesn’t matter where you’re at until November. You can be on there one week, and next week you won’t even see your name.”

Since the automatic playoff bid for conference champions was introduced in 1999, only one WIAC team has gone through conference play unbeaten. (In 2000, UW-Stout was 7-0, 10-1). In that same stretch, no team has gone winless in conference play. Then there are years like 2004, when the last place team has a pair of conference wins and a .500 overall record, while the WIAC’s playoff representative was 5-2, 7-4.

“(Our players) have to realize that in this league, we have no weak sisters,” says Berezowitz, whose team travels to Stevens Point and La Crosse the next two weeks. “I’m not saying it’s the best league in NCAA football, but it’s the most even.”

This year, the CCIW can join in that claim as well.

Random observations from Chicago trip
I know that most of you are wrapped up in the games you coach, play in or have a special connection to each Saturday. Some of you don’t have the means or the desire to travel the country for Division III games, but it’s important for Around the Nation to truly take folks around the nation. Of course we do it to be able to compare teams the best we can, but every trip is also a snapshot of America. It’s a great experience for us to be able to visit so many of the places you all call home, and the least I can do is share.

North Central quarterback Kam Kniss shows the Little Brass Bell to kids who likely weren't alive the last time the Cardinals won it, in 1997.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3football.com

->I think my favorite moment from the trip was walking towards the North Central locker room with Kam Kniss after the Cardinals’ win, talking about the great points of Division III football. Kniss said “I’ve been here for three years, and every time I step on the field, I have the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

->Travelling partner Pat Coleman and I missed a few turns on our trip, and one mistake put us on the back roads to Whitewater from the Chicago suburbs. County Road C (this was really its name) led us through Trevor, Wilmot and Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, where our surreal moment of the trip took place. As we drove past farmland, two girls dressed in full-out goth attire walked by the side of the road.

->When we actually get the chance to go around the nation, I become much more aware of the geography in an area. Although I’d seen it on maps before, it was interesting to see how the CCIW, WIAC, MWC and IBFC all intertwine around the Chicago and Southeast Wisconsin area. It was also a nice reminder that Wisconsin and Indiana, despite having big cities of their own, aren’t far from the Windy one. At one point along I-88, the highway signs point to Aurora, Rockford and Elmhurst — city names and homes to Division III schools. And from our base in Lisle, Ill., I really thought it was cool to be able to drive from Wheaton to Benedictine to North Central in minutes, and observe the uniqueness of each campus.

->Wheaton gets this reputation as a kooky little Christian school. While people are certainly entitled to their opinions, I quite enjoyed being on campus there. But the best thing I took from meeting the enthusiastic Swider was that the football program’s mission wasn’t all that different than it is around Division III. Sure, the kids may look and act different at Bridgewater or Rowan, but on all of our stops, we find that coaches use football to supplement the education. Or as North Central coach John Thorne put it, he wants a program that churns out great fathers, successful businessmen and people of strong faith, as much as good players.

->Perkins Stadium is proof that light purple really stands out against a natural green backdrop.

->I was as impressed with the facilities at North Central and UW-Whitewater as I have been anywhere. Both places had sizable grandstands that stretch from 20-yard line to 20-yard line, and both North Central and Wheaton had artificial turf as nice as any. I’ve always been partial to Widener’s Quick Stadium, because of the grandstand and the naturally enclosed setting, but I may have to reconsider my favorites.

->Benedictine has a stadium that looked both sharp and like something most small schools could afford (although the city paid for it and owns it). I can’t say we got a great look at it, since we went by when it was dark, but security didn’t even acknowledge us as we walked right in. The football stadium is backed up to a baseball stadium that looks like it would fit well in the low minor leagues.

->Pat and I were guilty of projecting the playoff brackets to pass time on the plane, although Pat admitted this was the earliest he’d ever done it. We determined that there is way too much unsolved to even make a good guess at what brackets will look like, but it never hurts to try.

Poll positions
Voters are in a difficult stretch at this time of year. There’s enough information in, and enough still unsettled, to make top 25 cases for about 50 teams.

Ultimately, each voter has his own influences and reasons for ranking teams where he does. But there are some things about the nature of a Top 25 in a 231-team division that make it hard to satisfy the masses. (Not that that’s always the goal)

E-mails have come in this week about Monmouth, Ferrum and Hobart, to name a few. Each team’s situation is different, but a few things to keep in mind:

We rank about 11% of Division III teams, and fewer than the 32 that make the playoffs. We’ll point out later in the column that 46 teams were unbeaten heading into last weekend’s games, and only 14 of them lost. So even if every unbeaten team were ranked, we’d still spill over the edge of the Top 25. The rankings are just a drop in the Division III bucket, and don’t have room to acknowledge every team that’s performing well.

Just like any poll, it helps to start on the voters’ radar. It will take time for teams like Ferrum or St. Olaf, even if on top of conferences with good reputations, to gain the voters’ attention and respect.

Teams like Monmouth and Hobart, although they can only beat the teams on their schedule, may suffer from lack of attention-grabbing opponents. You can beat four also-rans in a row, and it won’t attract the same attention as a win over a good non-conference opponent or a top conference rival. If a team has few games like that on its schedule, its fans can only hope for them to be consistent as they win, while other teams suffer losses and drop off.

North Central's Lenny Radtke, Tim Bellazzini, Kam Kniss, Chuck Earnest and Eric Stuedemann hold the Little Brass Bell.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3football.com

Starting on the radar has worked for teams like UW-Whitewater (No. 21 preseason, No. 8 now) and Ithaca (from No. 17 to No. 11). Others, like No. 20 North Central and No. 22 Thiel, moved into the polls by the beat-the-best, now-we-the-best theory. And that hurts upstart teams, because the traditional powers who’ve lost still find themselves in the mix, often hovering on the Top 25 bubble.

What’s nice about a subjective poll is that it doesn’t have to conclude that an unbeaten team is better than one who played a team such as Rowan or St. John’s and lost by a touchdown.

There are some pretty significant differences between the current D3football.com and AFCA Top 25s. Mount Union is No. 2 by the coaches, receiving five of 40 first-place votes, while here, they’re third to Mary Hardin-Baylor by 11 points and ranked first by no one. The top 14 teams are the same in both polls, but in different orders. Outside of that, big differences are No. 17 Salisbury (unranked by the AFCA), No. 23 UW-Stout (16th), No. 24 Wooster (15th), No. 25 Coe (20th) and unranked Hobart (17th). Monmouth, 25th by the coaches, received a single 25th-place vote in our poll. Their No. 22, Johns Hopkins, would be 35th in our poll.

Everything will sort itself out, through future results and/or the 32-team playoff system. Another beautiful thing about Division III is that the poll is just a gauge. Rhetoric and what-ifs fall by the wayside come mid-November.

All of that said, no place in the column is better for my weekly nod to teams I’ve considered for the Top 25, but ended up not voting for. Usually I give my next 10, from 26-35, in no particular order. But I was serious about considering 50 teams, and these are in a not-quite-perfected order. If you don’t see your team, it means I am voting for them, or they’re not quite Top 25 material yet.

Ohio Northern, Capital, Wheaton, Albright, Augustana, UW-Stout, St. Olaf, Trinity (Conn.), Monmouth, Johns Hopkins, Ferrum, Christopher Newport, Hampden-Sydney, Whitworth, Union, Hobart, Wooster, Cortland State and Adrian. My group starts to get a bit iffy here, but I continue with DePauw, East Texas Baptist, John Carroll, UW-Eau Claire, Central, Bethel, Alma and Otterbein.

Road trip of the week
Winless and coming off a 53-0 defeat against Chapman, we’ll shine some light on the poor kids at Lewis and Clark who conclude their short season on the road this week.

After dropping their Northwest Conference opponents and settling for a four-game schedule, the not-quite-three-dozen Pioneers have to travel 991 miles for a chance to go out on top. Driving from Portland to Claremont, Calif., would take more than 15 hours, most on the same highway.

The other 15-hours-if-you-drove trip of the week is Occidental at Colorado College. I thought Cal Lutheran at Menlo would be a hike, but the schools’ home cities are 371 miles apart — not much different than Rose-Hulman and Rhodes (391 miles from Terre Haute, Ind. to Memphis) or Louisiana College and Austin (359 miles from Sherman, Texas to Pineville, La.)

Recommended road trips of the week
The recommended trip each week is basically Around the Nation’s way to see two games with the least amount of trouble.

Fans of Northwestern (Minn.) will get to watch their team play twice on Saturday, and maybe with little trouble. The Eagles will host Trinity Bible at noon CST, then travel across St. Paul to Macalester for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

There are precisely three directions, including the start and end points, on MapQuest.com. The site says the trip takes 14 minutes to travel the 6.36 miles.

By attempting the double feat, Northwestern will draw national media attention to both its Christian mission and Division III football (although it’s a provisional newcomer). It’s a situation that is uniquely possible because of proximity and the quality of teams the Eagles will play.

Though it’s possible Northwestern will win both games, it’ll be more interesting to see how they’re managed. As a player, I think I could have played as long as necessary uninterrupted, because I never realized how spent I was until the first time I sat or laid down on Saturday night. I wonder if Northwestern, which boasted 74 players in the preseason, will limit its starters to a quarter in the first game to see if they make it to the end of the night. Or maybe it’ll let them play until they have nothing left, and then go to the twos. Perhaps a rotation is in place, or every Eagle will play, regardless of whether they win or not.

What is certain is that this will be history, and it’s definitely our recommended trip this week.

Five games to watch
The game of the week might be in the CCIW, where No. 13 Carthage hosts Augustana. But since we already talked a bunch about that conference, are are five other games to pay attention to:

No. 1 Linfield at Whitworth
This one’s at the Pine Bowl, but we’re not very encouraged after the Pirates lost last Saturday. This could be the Wildcats’ last tough test before the playoffs, and they’ll throw an overlooked but speedy defense at Whitworth quarterback Joel Clark.

No. 7 St. John’s at Bethel
By the name-recognition and records (5-0 for the Johnnies, 2-2 for the Royals), some may think this is no contest. Bethel coach Steve Johnson hasn’t been around quite as long as St. John’s counterpart John Gagliardi, but he and his staff have seen enough to figure the Johnnies out. That means it may come down to which team plays better, or is better, on Saturday. Shouldn’t be an easy win either way.

Texas Lutheran at East Texas Baptist
Some might look at Mary Hardin-Baylor vs. Howard Payne as the ASC game of the week, but Bulldogs-Tigers could be sort of an elimination game. We figure there’s only room for one other legitimate contender besides Hardin-Simmons and UMHB, so who will it be? Since the Tigers gain just 246 yards per game to the Bulldogs’ 423, they’ll need a solid defensive effort.

La Verne at Redlands
The Leopards are off to a 2-0 start in SCIAC games, while this is the Bulldogs conference debut. Before either can challenge Occidental for SCIAC supremacy, they have to battle each other. La Verne has rolled up 931 yards of offense in its past two games, while Redlands hasn’t played since earning its only win Sept. 24 at Chapman.

Alma at Adrian
A win by these Bulldogs could end the MIAA race before it starts. Hope and Wisconsin Lutheran could each concieveably be 2-0 in conference play as well after Saturday, but this is the matchup to take note of. Alma, last season’s MIAA playoff rep, was picked to win the conference this season. Adrian started 4-0 last season, but a 27-7 loss at Alma triggered a 2-4 finish.

Also keep an eye on: Brockport State at No. 15 St. John Fisher, Widener at Albright, Bridgewater State at Maine Maritime, Coe at Buena Vista

Streak watch
Teams either want into this group, or can’t wait to get out.

Before we touch on current streaks, let’s get something straight. Trinity (Conn.) does not hold Division III’s all-time consecutive wins mark. Mount Union had a 55-game win streak from 2000-03 and a 54-game streak from 1996-99. Augustana also had a 37-game streak from 1983-85. While each team had more than eight games per year to extend their records, they also had to beat several playoff teams to sustain them.

Hiram’s 7-2 win over Earlham on Saturday broke a 16-game losing streak dating to Oct. 25, 2003, so the Terriers won’t have to see themselves mentioned here for a while. They’re further along the way to a good-streak mention than Washington and Jefferson.

That leaves just two teams that haven’t won since before the 2004 season. They are:
Heidelberg (20 consecutive losses, last win against Marietta on Oct. 4, 2003, 0-4 in 2005)
Concordia (Ill.) (15 consecutive losses, last win against Eureka Nov. 8, 2003, 0-5 in 2005)

Thirty-two teams remain unbeaten in 2005, down from 46 last week. That’s still not a manageable enough number for me to bore you with the length of every one’s win streak, but we know Trinity (Conn.) is at 24 wins in a row, Linfield 16 and Monmouth 12.

Of those 32, 25 are 4-0, five are 5-0 and two are 3-0.

Twenty teams are still without a win this season, including 11 that are 0-4, six that are 0-5 and three that are 0-3.

Who are those guys?
The out-of-division games are few and far between these days as teams are locked into conference play. But when Division III teams fill their schedule openings with opponents from different levels, our friend Ralph Turner will track them on our our message board, Post Patterns. We’ll also keep track of things here, starting with how our teams did last week and who’s coming up:

Against Division I-AA: 0-1 in Week 5, 4-7 in 2005.
This week’s opponents: None

Against Division II: No games in Week 5, 4-9 in 2005.
This week’s opponents: None

Against NAIA: 2-1 in Week 5, 10-14 in 2005.
This week’s opponents:
Husson at Southern Virginia
Southern Oregon at Willamette

Mark my words (or eat ’em)
If you make it this far, we’ll reward you — if you’ll consider it such — with a few expectations for the coming week. If that doesn’t do it for you, keep an eye on our blog, the Daily Dose, where other D3football.com staff members look ahead to each Saturday.

Here’s what I think about Week 6:
->North Park got a dose of reality after its 3-0 start, losing 50-6 to Augustana last Saturday. This week, it’s Huntingdon’s turn. Though the teams the Hawks got their 4-0 start against are a surprising 6-7 if you take away their results against Huntingdon, an 830-mile road trip to visit the No. 10 team in the nation is still a little more than the Hawks are ready to handle.

->The automatic qualifier for conference champions is great for several reasons. I’m not sure this is one of them: Hiram (1-0 NCAC, 1-3 overall with 20 points scored) is technically just as likely to make the playoffs as No. 24 Wooster (1-0, 4-0, outscoring opponents 125-65).

->Mass-Dartmouth is coming off 11-1, 9-2 and 7-4 seasons. But the NEFC’s Corsairs are 0-5 this season with a game at 0-4 Nichols on Saturday. They might still finish .500. The combined record of the five teams left on their schedule is 3-16.

->A reader wrote to point out that the IIAC was 2-1 over the CCIW. Point taken.

Readers have always been a big part of Around the Nation, and this year we’ve added another way for you to talk back. We’ve always listened to what you had to say — good, bad or indifferent — with our feedback form or in your e-mails to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com. Now, we’ve added a thread on the new Post Patterns board to discuss issues raised in Around the Nation.

Attention SIDs
As always, Around the Nation requests media guides and any other aids in helping us cover your school or conference this season. We are also interested in seeing game tapes from schools we aren’t able to see in person this season. For more information, contact Keith McMillan at keith@d3football.com, or snail mail to D3football.com, 406 N. Argonne Ave., Sterling, Va., 20164.

Please do not add us to your regular release lists, but instead use our news release links to have your information posted on our front page and your team’s page. Thank you.

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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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