It all comes down to Saturday

More news about: Elmhurst | Huntingdon
Trevor Manuel has scored 18 touchdowns for Huntingdon, which needs a win Saturday to have a shot at a playoff bid.
Huntingdon athletics photo

Division III is abuzz about its most intriguing race for at-large playoff bids ever.

As two of the central teams in the mix for seven available spots, Huntingdon and Elmhurst haven’t escaped the curiosity about strength of schedule, regional rankings and potential home playoff games. What makes the Hawks and Bluejays unique is that their programs’ grand dreams rest on what they do on Saturday; a bad game could render all the hoping and discussing moot.

“Honestly, we kind of told our guys that this week is the first round of the playoffs,” says Mike Turk, who coached independent Huntingdon to its only playoff appearance in 2009, when it lost in the first round. “Obviously we’re not guaranteed anything if we win like you are in the playoffs, but we’re guaranteed something if we lose, I can tell you that.”

“It’s definitely different,” says coach Tim Lester, whose Elmhurst teams were 5-4 and 6-3 heading into the final week the past two seasons, well out of the playoff picture. “I think our guys are aware of the implications of our final game.”

The Bluejays, 8-1 and 5-1 in the CCIW, can clinch the conference’s automatic qualifier with a win against Illinois Wesleyan (6-3, 3-3), a Wheaton win over North Park (1-8, 0-6) and a North Central loss to Augustana. If Elmhurst, Wheaton and NCC win, the Cardinals take the automatic bid and the Bluejays are perhaps the first at-large team plucked off the board and put into the field.

Huntingdon, at 6-2 with a seven-point loss to 6-3 Birmingham-Southern and a 10-point loss to Wesley, probably lost out on its chance at the Pool B playoff bid against the Wolverines. The Hawks are one of six independents nationally, and along with five members of the SAA and four in the UAA, they were competing for one playoff spot set aside for 15 teams. The Hawks are fortunate, however, that this season is one in which a 7-2 team with a high SoS and key wins (they won at 6-3 Hampden-Sydney and 7-2 Millsaps, and host 8-1 automatic qualifier Adrian of the MIAA on Saturday) could get in. The Hawks, need, however to win Saturday, and understand how their resume holds up against some others across the country.

“Thanks to you guys, they’re all over it,” says Turk of his players’ playoff credential awareness. “I was raised not to talk about stuff like that. But these days, with the internet and Twitter, we talk about it daily. The kids are gonna do what they’re going to do … so we’re better off putting it out there.

“If they’re going to be reading what’s what, they might as well hear it from a coaches’ perspective,” he said.

With so much to play for, and so much excitement building on campus and among those who follow the programs, how can Huntingdon and Elmhurst focus on the task at hand and not put the cart before the horse?

“We talk in terms of ‘you’ve got to handle today’s business today,’ ” Turk says. “It sounds canned but it’s true.” If the Hawks focus on having their best possible Mondays and Tuesdays, watching video, preparing mentally and practicing, “Saturday takes care of itself when you do that,” he says.

“My big thing with my guys is control the controls,” Lester says, in a phrase that can be used both individually and to describe the Bluejays’ big picture. Elmhurst can’t influence the other results, but they can put their best game forth on Saturday.

For Lester, the fourth-year coach of a program that has never been to the playoffs and hasn’t won a conference title outright in 32 years, there’s no time to stop and think about what it all means. Alumni are encouraged, and Lester knows the ins and outs of the situation since he’s the CCIW representative on the North Region advisory committee to the national selection committee. But his mind is primarily on sending 15 specific players out on top.

“This is my first senior class,” Lester says. “These are the guys who four years ago I tried to sell on a dream of we could do this.

“For us, that’s really what we’re focusing on. Being at home, it’s all about our 15 seniors … They were with us 365 days a year for four years. … We can’t let these guys down. 

Turk says “it obviously will be the final home game for 18 of our seniors,” as well, knowing that there’s but a slim chance for a team with two losses to host a game.

So Turk and Lester embrace what’s guaranteed rather than focusing on the unknown. For Elmhurst, that meant something at Thursday’s final practice that Lester picked up from Gary Darnell at Western Michigan: Each senior stands five yards apart on each of the yard markers, and the rest of the team proceeds down the line, taking advantage of their final chance to say goodbye.

Lester says it can take as long as 45 minutes, and players midweek were discussing which teammate won’t be able to keep it together.

Those bonds are a big reason teams so often enjoy the playoffs. Not only do they get to play to challenge themselves against the nation’s best teams and pursue a championship, they earn another week of football with each victory.

Once again, though, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Until the Bluejays and Hawks win this Saturday, the playoffs aren’t a real possibility. But that doesn’t keep people from anticipating.

“I think we’re all excited about the game this week,” Lester says. “But alumni and fans are naturally excited about the possibilities, and that’s their right.”

Wayne Tuckson leads the Bluejays in tackles and sacks.
Elmhurst athletics photo

Both games have a domino effect on the Pool C playoff picture across the nation.

What Elmhurst does affects teams throughout the North Region, which is up in the air because the CCIW and NCAC together have seven teams with playoff hopes wrapped up in Saturday’s outcomes. That means things could break a lot of ways, any of which could affect the Bluejays.

“It’s impossible for me not to know,” laughs Lester, who spends Tuesday nights on a conference call with the regional advisory committee and has another scheduled for Saturday night, after Week 11’s games. Staying busy for senior week and preparing for Illinois Wesleyan “Limits the amount of wondering your mind can do,” the coach says.

A Huntingdon loss would open up a spot for someone such as Bethel, Louisiana College or UW-Platteville; a win is another against a regionally ranked opponent, a key piece of selection committee criteria.

Huntingdon’s game in Alabama against a team from Michigan came up in a peculiar way. Independents are always searching for games, and with the MIAA being a seven-team conference, they have more availability to play than teams in 10-team conferences.

The teams met in the third week of September 2007, with the Bulldogs winning 36-26. Turk says his memory is shaky, but he believes the teams were set to play again in 2008, before Huntingdon’s brief stint as a member of the now-defunct SLIAC meant they couldn’t play the return game.

This year, the teams signed another two-year contract, and Adrian is traveling. Because Huntingdon is again joining a conference next season, the USA South, they might not be able to play the return game. In all, things will have evened out. Unwitting, the teams have the national spotlight trained on this game.

Instead of looking ahead, just as at Elmhurst, all Huntingdon can do is buckle down and focus.

“What we’ve done has gotten us where we are,” Turk says. “Let’s continue to do that, it’ll get us where we want to go. And we aren’t there yet.”

A salute to the seniors

I didn’t get to write this year about the few who persevered through four years of student-athlete challenges to play for the love of the games. Those who are playing or have played their last always deserve a tip of the hat from ATN. I covered the subject in a column last season, and whether you’ve read it before or not, the words apply at this time of year.

Rivalry watch

Likewise, because I’ve been so focused on the playoff picture this season, and the nation’s great rivalry games don’t have playoff implications this season, they’ve gone largely overlooked in this space. But that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about them totally. I talked last season with alumni whose memories of rivalry games were as vivid as the day they played them. If you’re hungry for a taste of what makes the best Division III rivalries endure, here’s an in-depth look that’s somewhat timeless.

Pool A watch

Thirteen of the 24 automatic bids are clinched. Here’s the list of what’s done, and what’s up in the air still in Week 11.

ASC – Mary-Hardin Baylor clinched.

CC – Johns Hopkins slipped up last weekend against Franklin & Marshall, but needs only to beat winless McDaniel to clinch.

CCIW – Discussed above.

ECFC – Mount Ida (5-1, 7-2) lost at Gallaudet last Saturday, but still travels Castleton State (6-0, 7-2) to settle it. The Spartans start freshman quarterback George Busharis in place of injured Shane Brozowski.

Empire 8 – Salisbury clinched.

HCAC – Hanover is yet another team that lost last weekend, but has a chance to earn the conference AQ if it upsets Franklin in the teams’ Victory Bell rivalry game.

IIAC – Coe clinched

LL – Hobart clinched.

MAC – Widener (8-0, 7-0) needs to beat Delaware Valley in to clinch, and Del Val needs to win by 16 or more to get the AQ. Otherwise, it belongs to Lycoming, assuming the Warriors beat first-year Misericordia (0-7, 0-8).

MIAA – Adrian clinched.

MIAC – St. Thomas clinched.

MWC -- Lake Forest (8-0, 8-1) travels to St. Norbert (7-1, 7-2), while Illinois College (7-1, 8-1) hosts Carroll (6-2, 7-2). The Foresters are in with a win. A Green Knights win and a Blueboys loss would give St. Norbert the title. If both the Green Knights and Blueboys win, a three-way tie comes into play, and IC is believed to have the advantage based on the quarters led tiebreaker.

NathCon -- Concordia-Chicago clinched.

NCAC – Wabash’s loss leaves Wittenberg and Ohio Wesleyan (both 5-1, 8-1) tied at the top with Kenyon (5-1, 6-3). The NCAC has revealed its many tiebreakers, but because all conference teams don’t have results against one another, it is difficult to predict how the tiebreaker sorts out. Kenyon, however, has a very legitimate chance to take the AQ with a win, which could push someone out in Pool C. Three losses could give the Little Giants (4-2, 7-2) an expected title.

NEFC -- Framingham State (8-0, 9-1) will represent the Bogan Division in the conference title game against Body Division champion Salve Regina (7-1, 9-1). Winner takes the AQ. Bridgewater State, at 9-1 with a loss to Framingham State, might have at-large chances if the Rams make the playoffs. Otherwise, they and the NEFC title game loser probably host ECAC bowl games.

NJAC -- Cortland State has clinched.

NWC -- Linfield has clinched.

OAC -- Mount Union has clinched.

ODAC -- Washington and Lee has clinched.

PAC -- Waynesburg (7-0, 9-0) hosts Washington and Jefferson (6-1, 7-2) as they face off for the AQ.

SCIAC -- Cal Lutheran (6-0, 7-1) hosts Chapman (5-1, 6-2) play for the AQ.

UMAC – St. Scholastica took the AQ after a three-way tie was broken by random draw.

USAC -- Christopher Newport (5-1, 6-3) needs to win at home against Methodist (3-3, 4-5) to clinch. Ferrum (5-1, 7-2) lost to CNU, but would get the AQ with a home win against Maryville (4-2, 5-4) and a Captains loss.

WIAC -- UW-Oshkosh clinched.

Pool C watch

Covered in great depth in Tuesday’s Handy Guide to Pool C and on the Pool C message board. No update really required, except to say that the NCAC teams look to be ahead of the CCIW teams, and I’d projected the opposite.

Award watch

In last week’s column, I pointed out some differences between the Gagliardi and other trophies, and gave a watch list. There are two other awards whose candidates are revealed: The Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year considered everyone a candidate, and Twitter voting is underway. By that, I’d say UW-Oshkosh’s Pat Cerroni is winning, but the website actually tells you, and he’s third behind North Central’s John Thorne and Lake Forest’s Jim Catanzaro. Fan votes are just part of the process.

Also, Division III has two finalists for the all-divisions William V. Campbell Trophy, Mount Union safety Nick Driskill and MIT lineman Ethan Peterson. Click here to learn more about the trophy.

Don’t tune out!

After the last regular season game is played, there’s a lot to look forward to, so don’t tune out!

Sat. Nov. 10: Week 11 games, with top rivalries.
Sun. Nov. 11: Selection Sunday (show now at 6:00 p.m. online)
Following week: Final Around the Region columns, Playoff team capsules
Thu. Nov. 15: ATN’s annual playoff surprises/disappointments column
Sat. Nov. 17: Playoffs, Round 1 (32 teams), ECAC bowl games (12 teams)
Following week: ATN podcast on Monday, Road to Salem playoff features Tues.-Wed.
Sat. Nov. 24: Playoffs, Round 2 (16 teams)
Following week: Gagliardi trophy finalists named, Road to Salem features, ATN podcast
Sat. Dec. 1: Playoffs, Round 3 (eight teams).
Following week: All-Region teams announced, four Gagliardi Trophy regional finalists announced, Liberty Mutual coach of the year fan voting ends, Road to Salem features midweek, ATN podcast.
Fri. Dec. 7: D-III Senior Classic all-star game in Salem, 7 p.m. kickoff. (Other college all-star games linked here)
Sat. Dec. 8: National semifinals (four teams), live webcast with ESPN regional or syndicated coverage possible.
Wed. Dec. 12: Gagliardi Trophy presentation, live webcast
Thu. Dec. 13: Stagg Bowl luncheon, pregame festivities in Salem/Roanoke
Fri. Dec. 14: Stagg Bowl XL, 7 p.m., all-Americans announced during pregame broadcast, wall-to-wall coverage of the championship, ATN’s year-in-review column
Mon. Jan. 9: Liberty Mutual coach of the year award winner announced.

Three takes on Week 11

Rivalries, playoff implications and more. Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I will give insight and predictions on games of the week and more in the Week 11 Triple Take.

Six ways to Saturday

Stay connected to ATN …

• Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith. It’s a sporadic stream of short-form minutiae, most of it D-III related. It’s also the best way to directly converse with the column’s author. There’s also @d3football and @D3MidAtlantic (Tipps), plus five of our regional columnists: @AdamTurer, @Andrew_Lovell, @BLester1993, @clydehughes and @kylerobarts.

If you want to get us to notice you, use hashtag #d3fb. On Saturdays, the ability to sort by hashtag on Twitter gives D-III football its own channel for live insights, in addition to our live scoreboards, which are home to instantaneous updates, plus all the live stats, audio and video links we’re aware of.

• On Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board. That’s the next-best place to ask a question about a topic raised in the column, or continue a discussion unrelated to this week’s ATN.

• Mondays, Pat Coleman and I wrap up the week that was in our podcast. Download from iTunes or listen to it in the Daily Dose’s media player.

• When the column publishes on Thursdays.

• In Friday morning’s Triple Take, on The Daily Dose.

• On instagram, via @d3keith.

On Saturdays, our running game day conversation no longer lives on the Daily Dose, but on Twitter.

The press box

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