Recipe for a revival
When Kurt Ramler became Carleton head coach in February,
he says it wasn't just an attempt to get back to Minnesota, or the
MIAC, a conference he dominated as St. John's quarterback in the
mid-90s. It also wasn't just to get out of a losing situation at
Heidelberg or take the first head coaching job that came
"I really believe it can happen here," he said.
His Knights, off to a 3-1 start with the loss coming this past weekend against his alma mater, are making it happen much sooner than most outsiders thought.
But Ramler knew a little more about Carleton than the average MIAC-watcher.
"My best friend from high school went to school here and played football here," Ramler says of Chris Czerwonka, a 1996 all-MIAC wide receiver. "I knew that Carleton wasn't just a place for, well, nerds."
It's no surprise where the Northfield, Minn., school, ranked No. 6 in U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges 2007 among Liberal Arts Colleges (just behind Middlebury and ahead of Bowdoin and Pomona) earned such a reputation. But having spent time there visiting his buddy from Chaska High, Ramler felt like he already knew the place. And one thing stood out.
"They don't recruit people here just for academics," he says. "They recruit people with passion."
Ramler's own words explain how Carleton ended up with him as coach.
Short phone interviews begin to sound like recruiting pitches. But as Ramler explains, "It's pretty easy to fall in love with this place."
But how has he made football look so easy at a school which hasn't won more than four games since its last winning season, 1993, when the Knights were 5-4?
Much of that comes from the place where he passed for 6,062 yards and was the 1996 MIAC MVP, and the man for whom the trophy Ramler was runner-up for that year is named.
"A lot of it is using common sense and a lot of the same philosophies Coach Gagliardi (yes, he called him coach) teaches at St. John's," Ramler said.
But if Ramler still fancies himself a Johnnie deep down, it's hard to tell. Carleton, the coach says, is pretty much the best of the best. They were already doing things right, he implies, crediting former coach Chris Brann (now head coach at Beloit) with recruting almost all of the players he's winning with. The right philosophy was in place. The right kind of players were already on campus. All they needed was "to become great competitors" and win a little so they would believe in themselves.
With Ramler coordinating an aggressive, shotgun-based offense, the Knights won at Minnesota-Morris and against Macalester by a combined score of 102-14 the first two weeks.
But the Knights had been successful against below-average competition before. Last season, the Knights beat Beloit, Augsburg, Macalester and Hamline (a combined 9-30) while losing four times by 29 or more.
Beating MIAC contender Bethel 17-14 Sept. 23 and losing 29-19 to national No. 4 St. John's this past Saturday proved something really is different on campus. And it's not the caliber of players.
To maximize their talent (Ramler says 80-90 players is the most he expects in the program), Ramler and his new staff did make some changes. That involved asking some established players to make sacrifices for the good of the team. So fullback/tight end Matt Topeff was shifted to tackle. Tailback Wade Thompson now works mostly at fullback. Mike Kootsikas, a senior among the leading receivers in Knights history, moved to free safety.
Those sacrifices help the younger players buy into a coach's program. But it helps just as much if the moves pan out.
Against St. John's, Kootsikas had four tackles and an interception, Thompson had six carries and two catches and Topeff started at right tackle. Both Thompson and Topeff block for Knights back R.J. Jackson, who scored twice against the Johnnies, giving him nine TDs on the season (tied for third nationally).
Quarterback Darren Caspers (59 of 99 for 904 yards, seven touchdowns, two interceptions) is top 20 in passing efficiency, leading the nation's 16th-best passing offense and 21st scoring offense (34.8 points per game). The Knights have helped themselves on special teams, with a kicker and two return men in the top 50, and on defense, with the nation's top turnover margin (3.5 a game).
Mostly, Ramler says, "all I'm doing is letting them do their thing."
Which is what he saw Carleton doing, back when he was visiting Czerwonka.
Most Carleton students are good academically, and good at something else they're passionate about, Ramler says. Some students have the gift and the passion for music, he reasons, and some have it for football. And that passion, he says, lasts.
"Everyone who's involved with the college loves Carleton," he says. "Even if they played here when they weren't that good. That's rare. Normally you've got some naysayers," says Ramler, who's also coached at Wagner (N.Y.), Hamilton, Heidelberg and Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School.
Ramler, who says Division III football is "what's right with America" and believes Carleton is what's right about Division III, says he tries "to make wherever I'm at football heaven." Although he seems to be convinced Carleton was pretty high up before he arrived.
"If we play our way, it can happen here," he says.
It's already begun to.
"I think we're establishing a new way to do things at Carleton College," he said. "We're reinventing what Carleton football is all about."
Around the Nation spotted five more revivals going on around the country:
Sul Ross State
Coach Steve Wright has been on the job since March 2002, taking over a program that, like Carleton, put up back-to-back 0-10 seasons just after the turn of the century. Wright's first year with the Lobos was the second of those winless seasons, followed by 2-8 in an '04 season that featured two games at nationally-ranked Hardin-Simmons and 3-7 last season. The 2005 mark was deceiving though, as three of the losses were by five points or fewer. The Lobos scored a late-season 29-28 upset of Texas Lutheran, who went on to beat Hardin-Simmons the following week.
In 2006, the Lobos are out of the gate at 3-1, with wins over East Texas Baptist 17-16 and Howard Payne. Saturday's 60-56 win over the Yellow Jackets snapped their nine-game winning streak and provided the American Southwest Conference with more evidence that Sul Ross is becoming one of the league's legitimate teams.
The Bluejays had broken a habit of two-win seasons by surging to six wins in '03 and '05. But the revival comes in this season's 4-0 start. The Bluejays started with five wins last year, but lost four of their final five against a backloaded schedule. This year their start includes Saturday's 20-13 win over Carthage, the Bluejays first win against one of the four teams that did a number on them last season. Augustana and North Central are next up, so it could a short revival. But perhaps the Bluejays are ready to ascend into the CCIW's high upper echelon.
As mentioned in this week's Around the Mid-Atlantic, the Bears are unbeaten and looking as their first significant season since dropping from 10 wins and the playoffs in 1999 to 8 to 6 to 2, and a low of 1 in 2004. Ursinus may not be completely back -- they're on the road for four of their final six and have beaten only the last-place Centennial Conference team so far -- they are off to as impressive a defensive start as possible. Two shutouts and a game where they allowed only a safety gives the Bears the nation's No. 3 scoring defense and No. 12 defense overall.
Loras and Dubuque
The IIAC is one of those leagues where as soon as you figure it out, upsets turn it upside down. But in the end, the champion is usually Central, Coe or Wartburg, and Loras and Dubuque would be bringing up the rear. But after Saturday's statement games by both -- Loras' 32-30 upset of then-No. 14 Coe and Dubuque's 51-34 romp at Luther -- the conference title race could have some new cars running in it. The Spartans, who lost to the crosstown Duhawks 23-20 two weeks ago, won more games in September than in any recent season. Loras, meanwhile, is 2-2 and thriving under coach Steve Osterberger, who joined the program from Buena Vista this offseason. Dubuque plays all three big IIAC teams still, while Loras has Wartburg and Central left, so each has a chance to determine its own destiny.
I was not on the road last week, and used the Saturday at home to finish painting the corner of my kids' bedroom that's been white for six months. I piped in several D3 games, careful not to get green paint on the laptop, or the wife's precious carpet, and made a day of it.
I "kicked off" with Cortland at William Paterson, but only after I couldn't get the Rowan game to come in. (Thanks WGLS!) Of course, I had an inkling the night before to drive up from the D.C. area to South Jersey for the Profs-Western Connecticut game, but after hosting poker night until 2:30 a.m. was in no shape to wake up in time for the trip. My mind was telling me yes, but my body said heck no.
So to the computer it was. Cortland seemed to struggle early when I tuned in in time to hear a Pioneers blocked punt tie the game at 14. (In fact, Cortland hadn't struggled much at all to score, and had just given up a few big plays to Paterson). The Red Dragons responded with an Alex Smith-to-Drew Lescari 64-yard TD pass. The rout was on (30-14 final) and I was moving on.
Ithaca-Brockport State was interesting, as much for Ithaca's use of a not-too-bad sideline reporter and halftime studio show. I don't remember much about the game, except that Golden Eagles running back Garet Lynch (as well as 6-6, 310-pound tackle Cuyler Groth) didn't play. The Bombers forced six turnovers and won 26-7.
The D3football.com Game of the Week at Trinity (Conn.) turned out to be a big Williams victory, but at the time I was listening it was still in doubt. It was either a crazy atmosphere or the crowd mic was up too high, but Pat got it fixed and I was able to catch some of that before getting over to Carleton-St. John's, which was also still a tight game when I tuned in.
The highlight of the day, however, was tuning into Wartburg-Central in time to catch the very end of regulation and overtime, when Central scored on an option run that delighted the home broadcasters. Later on, I caught a brief bit of Hardin-Simmons vs. Mississippi College.
There was a point in the day when several top teams were in danger. Central was headed to OT, St. John's led Carleton 14-12 at halftime, Hardin-Simmons trailed 14-0 (the Cowboys won 48-28), Mary Hardin-Baylor trailed McMurry 9-0 (the Crusaders won 38-15) and Linfield was locked in a 14-14 tie with Willamette after giving up the first 14 points. (The Wildcats won 42-14.)
Internet broadcasting is a technology established enough that it's a reasonable expectation that most games will be live from one school's site or the other. But it's still new enough that there isn't a standard way to do it. Bounce around to a few games like I did, and your computer will have Windows Media Player, Real Player, QuickTime and iTunes all open at the same time.
NBC Nightly News is expected to run a piece along the lines of the New York Times' well-reported piece from July 10 (Small Colleges, Short of Men, Embrace Football, by Bill Pennington) on Sunday night. The Times' story detailed the use of football to close the gender gap in enrollments at Shenandoah, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Utica.
This item looks a lot different without the Trinity (Conn.) Bantams on top. Their four-year, 31-game winning streak, made possible by three consecutive unbeaten seasons and the NESCAC's refusal to participate in the playoffs, ended Saturday against Williams. In grand fashion. Some would say all is right with the world again, with Mount Union running the longest winning streak. Perhaps the defending national champion should be atop this list, but the Purple Raiders get a rematch against the last team that beat them this Saturday. They're coming off a Sunday win that extended the nation's longest losing streak to 30 games.
Wesleyan got off the list after 11 losses in a row with a 7-0 shutout of Hamilton. Howard Payne fell off the list after a year without losing (nine wins a row) after its 60-56 stunner against Sul Ross State. Tri-State put up points, but lost 58-36 to Alma.
Division III's longest win streaks
Mount Union (12 consecutive wins, last loss vs. Ohio Northern, 21-14, Oct. 22, 2005; 4-0 in 2006)
St. Norbert (12 consecutive wins, last loss vs. Monmouth, 28-20, Sept. 17, 2005; 4-0 in 2006)
Cal Lutheran (11 consecutive wins, last loss at Occidental, 41-9, Sept. 24, 2005; 4-0 in 2006)
Williams (8 consecutive wins, last loss at Trinity, Conn. 34-6, Oct. 1, 2005; 2-0 in 2006)
The longest active losing streaks
Heidelberg (30 consecutive losses, last win vs. Marietta on Oct. 4, 2003; 0-4 in 2006)
Juniata (17 consecutive losses, last win at Lycoming, 14-7, Oct. 30, 2004; 0-5 in 2006)
Tri-State (14 consecutive losses, last win vs. Kalamazoo, 21-14, Nov. 13, 2004, 0-4 in 2006)
Lewis & Clark (12 consecutive losses, last win vs. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Oct. 9, 2004, 0-3 in 2006)
The ranks dropped by six last weekend to 28, not including four 2-0 NESCAC teams. Eight teams are out in front at 5-0, with Carnegie Mellon and Concordia (Wis.) among those. Hardin-Simmons, at 3-0, is a game behind most of the unbeatens since lightning canceled a game they led 28-12 late in the second period. Rowan has a loss, but is 2-0 against Division III teams.
Preseason No. 150 Carnegie Mellon (5-0) is probably the biggest surprise among the unbeatens, with 4-0 Ursinus, Springfield and Franklin not far behind.
Twelve teams won their first game last weekend, thinning the ranks from 37 to 25, not including the NESCAC's four 0-2 squads. The most surprising teams on the list are 0-3 Redlands and 0-5 East Texas Baptist, preseason Nos. 51 and 53.
Five games to watch
Skimming the schedule, I got about halfway down, seeing a few that intrigued me and the best game looking like Lycoming at Wilkes. And then we hit the mother lode. This is the week. Enough with the tune-ups against creampuffs and out-of-conference/out-of-division games. Some conference races are about to get ugly.
No. 10 Ohio Northern at No. 1 Mount Union
The Polar Bears are looking crazy-good right now, averaging a 29-10 win in four games, having given up single digits in the past three and coming off a 26-0 shutout of Otterbein. They’re giving up fewer than 150 yards per game as the nation’s No. 2 defense. And the Purple Raiders dwarf all of that. Their average win is 66-7, they’ve got two consecutive shutouts and the nation’s No. 4 defense, along with the No. 1 offense. And the game is in Alliance for the second consecutive season. The Polar Bears’ trump card, despite having fewer players back from last season, is that they won there last year 21-14.
No. 5 Hardin-Simmons at No. 12 Mary Hardin-Baylor
Here’s defacto title game No. 1 this week, and it’s never an easy one to predict. The Cowboys can come in riding high, like last season, and get chumped 38-7. Two seasons ago Hardin-Simmons won the midseason matchup 49-22, only to lose 42-28 to UMHB in the playoffs. The American Southwest title is likely on the line in a game that could have a ripple effect throughout Division III. If the Crusaders and Cowboys each make the postseason and Trinity (Texas) wins the SCAC, a Texas team will play an out-of-state team in the first round (there are no more byes to help avoid this) for the first time since HSU played Wittenberg in 2001.
No. 4 St. John’s at St. Olaf
A pair of 5-0s meet in a possible defacto title game, although there are MIAC challenges a plenty the rest of the way for the Oles. St. Olaf brought a 7-0 record into the game last year, lost 63-9 and let its playoff chances go the following week in a 49-35 loss to Concordia-Moorhead. They do get the Johnnies in Northfield this time, and St. John’s hasn’t overwhelmed in either of its MIAC games.
Washington & Jefferson at Thiel
This is the third game on the list that will likely decide a conference title, and because of the PAC’s Pool B status and each team’s early-season loss, the playoff implications are grand. Conference-title-wise, Thiel is 2-0 in PAC games already while it’s the Presidents’ opener, but since these are the only two conference teams with winning records, it’s safe to say the winner is in good shape.
Monmouth at St. Norbert
The fourth defacto title game, and I promise it’s the last time I’ll use that word this week. This one is more like an elimination game than any of the others, however, because the NCAA committee has never taken two Midwest Conference teams in the same season. Monmouth’s loss to Wartburg hurts its Pool C chances with a loss, and hurts the league’s profile (and therefore, St. Norbert’s chances) if the Scots win. The Green Knights haven’t lost since a 28-20 defeat in this game last year, and have only played one close game since, two weeks ago against Lake Forest. Oddly, like the ONU-MUC game, this one is at St. Norbert for the second year in a row.
Also keep an eye on -- No. 3 Capital at John Carroll, UW-Platteville at No. 7 UW-La Crosse, No. 11 Occidental at Redlands, No. 13 Central at Luther, No. 15 St. John Fisher at Brockport State, Lycoming at No. 16 Wilkes, North Central at No. 20 Wheaton, Augustana at Elmhurst, Texas Lutheran at Howard Payne, Trinity (Texas) at Huntingdon, UW-Oshkosh at UW-Stout.
Upset special -- I don't exactly like my options here. All the teams I have confidence in wouldn't really be upset winners. Augustana over Elmhurst would be a cop out, technically an upset since the Vikings are 2-2 and the Bluejays unbeaten. But picking a defending conference champ is cheap. (plus I’m not sure they’re going to win). Luther, Redlands and Brockport have inspired no confidence anymore, and Kean at Cortland State is still a stretch. So I'm going out on a limb in the formerly wacky WIAC, taking UW-Platteville to make unnecessary ATN's scheduled trip to Wisconsin next week for the La Crosse-Whitewater showdown by upsetting La Crosse this week.
So far this year: 3-2, after Williams knocked off Trinity (Conn.) last week.
Surprisingly good game -- I think Puget Sound hosting not-quite-as-strong-as-they-used to be Linfield might keep it interesting for a while, maybe even into the fourth quarter. The Loggers have been running the ball at a five yards per carry clip, and may be able to keep the ball away from the Linfield offense for a while.
So far this year: (3-2 after Western Connecticut made Rowan work for their victory.
Who are those guys?
Thankfully, no more open-week fillers, no more mismatches and no more Azusa Pacific (I'm kidding on that third one). As conference clashes take the main stage this week, there are no out-of-division games at all, save Trinity Bible at Crown.
Last week, Millsaps drubbed Division II Lincoln (Mo.), UW-Stevens Point blanked NAIA Trinity International 35-0 and Whitworth edged Azusa 17-14.
vs. Division I-AA (No games in Week 5, 6-5 in 2006)
vs. Division II (1-0 in Week 5, 4-8 in 2006)
vs. NAIA (2-0 in Week 5, 18-7 in 2006)
But don't quote me
Quick, off-the-cuff observations from Week 5 and thoughts to get you ready for Week 6:
-> I don't like the playoff chances of this week's W&J/Thiel loser, as each enters with a loss already. Two-loss teams are often a good bet but not a lock to make the playoffs, but I think three of the four required Pool B spots will end up going to Wesley, Whitworth and Linfield, and Carnegie Mellon might press the PAC champ for the fourth berth. A fifth or sixth team that doesn't compete for an automatic bid could make it if its credentials stack up against Pool C teams (runners up in automatic-bid conferences). It's early, but for a playoff primer, see our FAQ page.
-> I thought Kenyon's 44-42 win over Ohio Wesleyan was the going to be the Shootout of the Week, until I saw Sul Ross' 38-35 halftime lead over Howard Payne.
-> Eye-opener of last week: Kean 50, Buffalo State 30.
-> Brockport appears headed for another year where they're just good enough for other teams to make their name off of them.
-> I stand corrected. King's joins Wilkes at the top of the MAC at 4-0
-> Hobart is 4-0, with wins by 3, 4, 7 and 5.
-> Besides providing the IIAC's yearly head-scratcher, Loras and Coe also produced a matchup that delighted name-nerds. Duhawks-Kohawks ... oh, so many lame jokes, so little time.
-> Every team in the MIAA has at least two losses, with none better than .500. In the seven-team PAC, only Washington & Jefferson (3-1) has fewer than two losses.
-> Morrisville State picked up its first Division III win, beating SUNY-Maritime 20-6. That leaves Martime and LaGrange in the race for last to win among new D3 teams.
-> Huntingdon, which had been receiving votes in the top 25 all season, is not quite ready for the big team. In losses to Ithaca and Wesley, the Hawks have been outscored 69-29.
-> Delaware Valley/Lebanon Valley, Rochester/St. Lawrence and Plymouth State/Western New England were all 19-18 games. Peculiar.
For print, radio and Internet journalists
Keith McMillan is available, by appointment, on Thursdays and Fridays to talk Division III football. For more information, e-mail Keith.
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