October 25, 2007

Central's nervous system can't be rattled

More news about: Central

From far away, the things taking place in and around Pella, Iowa, seem to border on the absurd.

It’s not quite Mount Union’s 55-game win streak, but Central (8-0) has streaked to No. 6 in the nation with a remarkable run of success in tight games. Coach Jeff McMartin, a Central alum under whom the Dutch are 33-5, has presided over 15 victories by eight points or less, including six in overtime. Five of their six IIAC wins this season have been one-score games, punctuated by Saturday’s 37-34 triple-overtime thriller against Dubuque.

The Dutch have won the past 14 times they’ve been outgained, including six times this season. They’ve battled injuries this season, including those limiting two-time IIAC player of the year Vance Schuring, their star running back, to 353 total yards and a touchdown. And yet they keep right on winning.

It’s luck, message board posters write.

“I think luck is involved in any game,” says Dubuque coach Vince Brautigam, still affected early in the week by his team’s inability to finish the Dutch. “You create your own luck by the things you do during the week in practice.”

In other words, Central’s success is beyond simply luck. It’s a knack, supported by their entire way of thinking.

“They’re an extension of their head coach,” Brautigam said. “They’re calm, and never believe they’re out of a game, and they don’t make a lot of mistakes.”

McMartin, trying not to get swept away believing in his team’s “knack,” admits that limiting mistakes is by design. The calm, though, he traces back to a moment late in his first season coaching his alma mater, a 6-4 year in which they lost as many one-score games (three) as they won.

A week after a particularly galling 14-10 defeat against Wartburg, in which the Dutch failed four times inside the 6-yard line late in the game, the team geared up for a game against Buena Vista. Quarterback and captain Mark Isaacson addressed the team.

“Tomorrow we’re going to cut it loose and have fun,” McMartin recalls Isaacson saying.

“You mean we haven’t been doing that already?” McMartin says he thought to himself.


Central quarterback Tim Connell holds the program's significant career passing records.

From then on, McMartin and his staff made sure to stress how much fun the games are, perhaps, though unintentionally, laying the foundation for a team that seems to shrug off the pressure in pressure situations.

Consider: In the following three seasons, 2005 through the first eight games of this season, Central is 27-3, including two postseason losses, and 21-1 in IIAC play. They are 12-2 in games decided by eight or less and are 5-0 in overtime.

“I actually thought about it during the Dubuque game,” McMartin said of the have-fun mantra. “In the third quarter, we were down, and we weren’t playing our best football. And yet anyone who would’ve been on our sideline could tell we were having fun. It jumped out at me. I just took note of it: ‘Wow, our guys are having a great time.’ ”

Of course, it’s not as though McMartin rolls a football onto the field each week and tells his players to go have a blast. There’s substance to the Central philosophy.

“We aren’t running plays no one’s ever seen before, or an offense that’s never been stopped,” McMartin says. “We’re committed to special teams. We try to keep a low turnover ratio. Giving your best effort is a big thing with us. Those are some of the things we can control.”

In fact, worrying about their performance against their best selves is at the heart of the mind-set.

“We never talk about statistics,” says McMartin, who thinks many of them can be misleading. “Not in meetings, or before games or after practice. We don’t concern ourselves with that.”

That might be wise, given his team has been outgained 3,151-2,715 this season, or about 394-340 each game. They’ve offset that with a 22-15 turnover-giveaway tally this season, and they’ve scored six touchdowns on defense and special teams.

The season-opening 35-10 win over St. Thomas might be the best example of Central’s prowess despite the statistics. The Tommies outgained the Dutch 378-175, but linebacker Greg Altamaier took a fumble back 52 yards for a touchdown, defensive back Brett Doud returned an interception 82 yards for a score and safety Aaron Rassmussen fell on a blocked punt in the end zone.


Vance Schuring is back on the field after injuries cost him carries.

But there’s more to The Central Way.

“We actually don’t talk a lot about winning,” McMartin said. “We talk about giving our best effort.”

Like Brautigam noted, that starts long before game day.

“We really focus on the process of getting ready,” McMartin says. “We want to have the best Monday we can possibly have. Then we go on to Tuesday.”

McMartin knows comparing his team to what others across the nation, especially in the top 10, is a quick way to end up disheartened.

“We just focus on having a good practice,” he says. “Of course we have long-term goals, like having a winning season. Those are things we talk about in March and April.”

The byproduct of such singular focus shows up on Saturdays.

“They will take advantage of your mistakes,” says Brautigam, who said he’s “had better Mondays,” partly because his team fumbled away a chance to win after recovering a Central fumble in Saturday’s second overtime. 

McMartin doesn’t have to look at the scores to know his team makes mistakes too.

“We can still get a lot better,” he says. “We have a long way to go. We’re so not perfect.”

There are a couple other reasons the Dutch have been successful, McMartin acknowledges.

When they’ve battled injuries, it hasn’t just been the fill-ins who’ve stepped in and maintained the level of play. The players who have stayed healthy have raised their games.

Central also prides itself on giving a team effort. But beyond the cliché, what McMartin means is that good opponents try to take away an aspect of what they do well, so the Dutch try not to box themselves in by spending too much (or too little) time on any one part of the game.

Each coach has a special teams responsibility, under coordinator Kevin Sanger. The Dutch also devote time to special teams in every practice. In a league as tight as the IIAC, the extra time makes a difference. With 3 minutes to go against Luther this year, Guy Dierikx returned a punt 45 yards for a touchdown that put the game away.

McMartin also says his coaching staff doesn’t waste a lot of time analyzing numbers.

“The teams you play, at this point in the season, what you see on film and what you see on the field is who they are.”

Who the Dutch are is simply a team that finds a way to get it done, and has fun doing it.

“We’re not always perfect, and we don’t always execute everything the way we’re supposed to,” he says. 

“I don’t think we do anything that’s different from anyone else. We have good kids who play hard.”

Second guess

Scheduling this weekend’s St. John’s trip for the Johnnies’ game against rival St. Thomas seemed like a good idea at the time. But with the Tommies coming in at 2-5, and with the number of monster clashes across the country Saturday, it’s more like ‘What were we thinking?’

Games to Watch

Week 9’s contests of national significance:
My insights are back in place of Gordon Mann, who is knee-deep in entering basketball schedules for D3hoops.com, bless his heart. Since there are so many games of major significance this week, let’s get right to it.

Week 9’s five top 25 clashes
 No. 1 Mount Union at No. 12 Capital: I normally wouldn’t give many opponents much of a shot against a Purple Raiders squad leading the nation in total offense (592.9 yards per game) and total defense (146.1), but here’s a reason to believe this game might be interesting: The Crusaders are second nationally in total defense (157.9). Although they are banged up on offense, with those kind of defenses, they might not need much, just a few strokes of good fortune (i.e. a defensive TD). Plus, Capital’s played Mount Union four times the past two seasons. If anyone’s got the book on the Purple Raiders, it’s Jim Collins. And still very few would be surprised at a blowout.

 No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor at No. 3 UW-Whitewater This is a clash we’ve been waiting for since last year’s 7-3 thriller in Belton, Texas. Although a non-conference game, it has major playoff implications. Then again, the two could end up playing each other again in the national semifinals no matter what they do here. In any case, the visiting Crusaders rush for 380 yards per game, tops nationally. Whitewater is 19th against the run, allowing 79 yards per game. The Warhawks counter with the nation’s second-leading rusher in Justin Beaver (178.3 yards per game), who didn’t play against the Cru last season because of a broken collarbone. The Warhawks haven’t been nearly as dominating as the Cru (they’ve hit 41 points once, while UMHB hasn’t been held below 47), but they seem to have settled since a comeback victory against UW-La Crosse and gained confidence in their first-year head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback.

 No. 9 Salisbury at No. 10 Wesley Rare that a top-10 face-off isn’t the Game of the Week, but it’s also rare to have so much riding on this Atlantic Central Football Conference rivalry. Only Mary Hardin-Baylor rushes for more than Salisbury’s 356.8 yards per game, while Wesley is more balanced statistically (rushing for 239 of their 467 average yards per game) and has speed to burn on the flanks. Both teams have played relatively challenging schedules, but have skated for the past two weeks. The Sea Gulls probably lock up a Pool B bid with a win and push the Wolverines to the playoff bubble, while a Wesley win could have an effect on the playoff fortunes of Pool B teams clear across the country.

 No. 19 Trinity (Texas) at No. 24 Millsaps The Majors should probably be 7-0, but they’ve made up for their Week 1 stumble against rival Mississippi College by thrashing their next six opponents by an average score of 40-9. Their largest margin of victory came in a 42-0 win against Rhodes, who beat Trinity 27-13 three weeks ago. A Tigers loss could mean there’ll be only one playoff team from Texas, in which case we assume Millsaps would draw UMHB in the traditional first-round “eliminate a team from the South” game. Tigers QB Blake Barmore didn’t play when the two teams met last season. Millsaps, playing just its third home game of the year, can clinch the SCAC title with a win.

 No. 25 Cortland State at No. 18 College of New Jersey The surprise leaders of the NJAC (Cortland because it thought it would be down after two successful years, TCNJ because they hadn’t had a winning record since 2004) haven’t been flashy so much as they’ve been tough and efficient. A 42-21 win against Western Connecticut last week marked the first time an opponent had scored more than 15 points on TCNJ, but it was only the second time they’d gone over 21 themselves. Cortland has dominated Montclair State and Kean, but beat Western Connecticut by 1 and Buffalo State by 3. The Lions are seventh nationally in total defense, while the Red Dragons are 28th. Cortland can clinch a share of the NJAC title, but TCNJ has Kean and Buffalo State left.

Five more with major conference title and playoff implications:
 No. 8 Washington & Jefferson at Waynesburg: The Yellow Jackets have to be in the midst of the quietest 7-0 start ever, but national rushing leader Robert Heller () and national tackles for loss leader Mike Czerwein (3.3 a game) should make some noise. The Presidents have the nation’s second-ranked total offense (), while the Yellow Jackets boast the No. 4 total defense.

 No. 11 Alfred at Hobart: The Saxons, in the drivers’ seat for not just a playoff spot but the East’s No. 1 seed, begin their run through their traditional season-ending gauntlet with a non-conference at Hobart. Trips to Ithaca and St. John Fisher follow. The Statesmen might seem down at 5-2, but the losses were toss-ups and they’ve been rolling since Week 5.

 Dickinson at No. 20 Muhlenberg: The Mules, who have defeated TCNJ, are beginning to get their due. They gave up 34 of their 37 points against two of their opponents. Dickinson (6-1) has had five of its games decided by a TD or less.

 North Carolina Wesleyan at Christopher Newport: Swept under the rug because both of these teams lost early, albeit to stout competition, a playoff spot (USAC automatic bid) is likely on the line here. CNU has won four in a row since a 1-2 start, while N.C. Wesleyan has topped five consecutive opponents after an 0-2 start.

 Amherst at Tufts; Middlebury at Trinity (Conn.): The NESCAC’s four 4-1 teams meet head-on in separate games. With Trinity and Williams up next, the Lord Jeffs would seem to need a win more than the Jumbos, but Tufts is coming off a 32-13 defeat at Williams. The surprising Panthers, meanwhile, visit the perennially in-the-mix Bantams with Tufts still on the schedule Nov. 10.

Also keep an eye on: No. 5 Wheaton at Elmhurst, Cal Lutheran at No. 14 Occidental, No. 17 Ohio Northern at Baldwin-Wallace, UW-Oshkosh at No. 22 UW-Stevens Point, Bridgewater (Va.) at Washington & Lee, Randolph-Macon at Guilford, Washington U. at Carnegie Mellon, Whitworth at Willamette. 

Rivalries: No. 4 St. John’s at St. Thomas, Cornell at No. 6 Central.

 Check Friday morning’s Daily Dose for Triple Take: Pat, Keith and a guest’s primer on Week 9 games.

Who are those guys?

Taking a look at those unfamiliar names on schedules, and following Division III teams in interdivisional play:

The schools on the schedule for Week 9 are a pair that have frequently surfaced on Division III schedules.

For Waldorf, a 55-0 loser to UW-Stevens Point in September and 58-7 loser to Luther last week, this week’s game at Buena Vista marks its third of four against Division III opponents this season. The Warriors also travel to Minn.-Morris in Week 10.

Likewise, Southern Virginia has already played three Division III opponents (Guilford, Ferrum and Frostburg State) and takes on Newport News Apprentice Saturday.

No ranked opponents at any level are in action in this week’s interdivision games.

vs. Division I, FCS (No games in Weeks 7-8, 4-7 in 2007) 
None.

vs. Division II (No games in Week 7, 0-1 in Week 8, 3-11 in 2007) 
None.

vs. NAIA (2-1 in Week 7, 2-1 in Week 8, 19-7 in 2007) 
Waldorf at Buena Vista
Newport News at Southern Virginia

For a running list of the season’s interdivisional scores and accompanying discussion, visit our Post Patterns threads D3 vs. D-IAA, D2 and D3 vs. NAIA.

Pool B/C watch

With three regular-season weeks remaining before the playoffs, it’s high time Around the Nation began looking at how the 10 playoff spots not determined by automatic bids are going to shake out.

Before going any further, if the pool system doesn’t make any sense to you, or you need a refresher course,read our Playoff Primer. You might also try frequently asked questions section regarding the playoffs for quick answers to your playoff questions.

D3football.com staff will also be available to tackle your specific playoff questions on our Pool B and Pool Cmessage boards. Fans offer some very strong insight there as well.

As it stands, there are six likely candidates for the three Pool B bids, and they each play one of the others in three games that will have a great effect on how the bids are distributed:
Salisbury (8-0) at Wesley (7-1) in Week 9 (this week, previewed below)
Washington U. (6-1) at Case Western Reserve (7-0) in Week 10
Linfield (4-2) at Whitworth (5-2) in Week 10

Salisbury and Case Western Reserve could virtually lock up playoff spots with wins, provided they win their other games as well. The other four teams are each operating with one Division III in-region loss already and would be virtually eliminated with another loss.

The easiest scenario is that the three teams that win these three games are in. But that’s not necessarily the case, especially if Wesley and Wash. U. win out. We could be left with as many as five of the above teams with one Division III, in-region loss, which would open up the possibility of a Pool B candidate (or two) qualifying in Pool C.

Speaking of Pool C, Gordon Mann was kind enough to share the following thoughts with us:
With the usual Pool C suspects picking up two losses or dropping out of the race entirely, I was starting to wonder how many quality teams are in line for Pool C bids. So I quickly tallied up the teams who have one loss but are not leading their conference. That is, these are one-loss teams who could win out and not get the AQ:

 St. John Fisher (7-1, 7-1 in region)
Games left: vs. Utica, vs. Alfred
They are only on the list because I don't know who wins a three-way tie-breaker should Hartwick, Alfred and SJF finish tied

 Waynesburg/Washington & Jefferson loser
Games left (W&J): at Waynesburg, at Thomas More, vs. Bethany
Games left (Waynesburg): W&J, at Geneva, vs. Westminster (Pa.)
Both teams are undefeated so one will be on this list next week

 Bridgewater (Va.) (6-1, 6-1 in region)
Games left: at Washington & Lee, vs. Randolph-Macon, vs. Catholic
Bridgewater (Va.) would win out and not win the title only if Hampden-Sydney also wins out (at Catholic, Huntingdon, at Randolph-Macon)

UW-Stevens Point (6-1, 3-1 in region)
Games left: at UW-Oshkosh, vs. UW-Eau Claire, at UW-La Crosse

Redlands (5-1, 4-1 in region)
Games left: vs. La Verne, vs. Whittier, at Cal Lutheran

Mt. St. Joseph (6-1, 6-1 in region)
Games left: vs. Defiance, at Bluffton, vs. Thomas More

Plymouth State (6-1, 6-1 in region)
Games left: vs. MIT, at Salve Regina

And that's it. That's the list. Some could come off the list if things break right (SJF, Bridgewater). UW-Stevens Point has a really tough road. And Plymouth State probably isn’t a viable Pool C candidate. So there’s still a chance for teams with two losses -- the Ohio Northerns, Capitals (eventually) and St. Olafs of the world -- to get in the playoffs with two big caveats:

1) The undefeated teams who are leading races need to win them so they don’t drop to Pool C. Two-loss teams should start cheering for these guys -- Alfred, Central, Mary-Hardin Baylor, Mount Union, Muhlenberg, Occidental, RPI, St. John’s, UW-Whitewater, Wabash, Wheaton.

2) Pool B has some solid candidates who could steal a Pool C. So at-large hopefuls should root for Salisbury to hand Wesley its second loss, Case Western Reserve to hand Wash. U. its second loss and Whitworth or Linfield to run the table (they play each other). That would leave just three Pool B teams with one loss or fewer.

 There is plenty left to be determined in the coming weeks, so the chatter will be going on non-stop, especially with the selection committee’s first regional rankings released this week. In between columns, stay tuned on the message board and The Daily Dose.

Unbeaten/winless watch

Now including the NESCAC, we’re down to 16 unbeaten teams among 238, while 17 teams were still without a victory. Some, like 0-8 LaGrange, Merchant Marine or Beloit, are running out of time to get one. Two of the unbeatens meet this week when Washington & Jefferson meets Waynesburg.

Highly recommended

Other things around the Web that might be of interest:

Our third Around the Nation podcast is available on The Daily Dose. We update with a new one each Monday.

Liberty Mutual coach of the year

Liberty Mutual has extended its coach of the year award to Division III this season, and fan voting accounts for 20% of the final decision. 

The current leaders are Millsaps’ Mike DuBose, St. John’s John Gagliardi, Geneva’s Geno DeMarco, RPI’s Joe King and Maryville’s Tony Ierulli, a group that represents not necessarily which coaches are doing the most amazing job this year, but probably whose fans have caught wind of the competition.

Feedback

Around the Nation is largely interactive, and since its inception has made reader feedback a part of the column. We keep a running board on Post Patterns (under general football) to discuss issues raised in the column, and we'll share feedback and answer questions there, as well as in the column occasionally. Send all correspondence to keith@d3football.com, or use our feedback form.

Call for video

Around the Nation is always looking for video of anything Division III football-related. That means we'd like to get our hands on documentaries, local cable broadcasts and re-airs, links to archived broadcasts and coaches' tapes. 

This is especially important to us around playoff time. Please let us know if you have access to footage, by e-mailing Keith@d3football.com.

For journalists and broadcasters

Keith McMillan is available on Thursdays and Fridays or by appointment to talk Division III football. For more information, e-mail Keith.

Attention SIDs

Around the Nation is looking for conference media guides this season, but will follow individual schools online or by request. Please use your individual login and D3football.com’s news release capabilities instead of Keith@D3football.com for general and game-related releases. That way, they get front-page play and still catch Around the Nation’s attention. Feel free to send personally addressed e-mail at any time.

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Thank you.

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