How to pull off an upset

Brendon Maturey benefitted from his coach's aggressive play calling to lead the upset of Thomas More.
Bridgewater Athletics photo

By Adam Turer

We thought 2016 was the year that everything changed. After two weeks, it looks like we are in for more chaos in 2017.

St. Thomas lost a non-conference game. UW-Whitewater fell to 0-2. Mary Hardin-Baylor and Linfield both looked mortal in their first games of the season. It’s never too early to predict who will play in Salem (we did it last month in Kickoff), but already it looks like many prognosticators are now hoping that a one- or two-loss team will get hot late and advance to the Stagg Bowl.

The Tommies and Warhawks were both popular picks to make it back to Salem. One of those two programs faced off against Mount Union in every Stagg Bowl from 2005 through 2015. Now, they face an uphill battle to make it back. UW-Whitewater will have to earn the WIAC’s Pool A bid. The Tommies may have a bit more wiggle room, but for both teams, the playoffs essentially start now.

St. John’s has dominated competition through two games. If the Johnnies can carry that momentum into a victory over the Tommies on Sept. 23, St. John’s will be squarely in the national title conversation. Similarly, North Central and Wheaton will have a head-to-head showdown on Oct. 14 to provide separation and clarity.

Mary Hardin-Baylor is still the reigning national champion, but did not turn in a championship performance in a 23-7 win over Sul Ross State in Saturday’s season opener.

Is it too early to think that Mount Union and UW-Oshkosh appear to be on a collision course for Salem?

One thing that often gets overlooked when there’s a big upset of a Top 25 team is the squad that actually earned the victory. UW-Stout is not in the national title picture, and the win over St. Thomas is not likely to propel them into that conversation. So, we naturally focus on how the Tommies’ loss affects the national championship race. Their loss affects more programs throughout the nation.

The Blue Devils’ win, on the other hand, impacts just one program for the long run. Clayt Birmingham’s squad has languished at or near the bottom of the WIAC since 2012. The Blue Devils finished 2016 on a four-game losing streak. But they opened up 2017 with a 17-0 shutout of Simpson, then notched the program’s biggest win since 2000, the last time UW-Stout made the playoffs.

It takes a special kind of aggression and fortune to pull out a surprise victory. The Blue Devils forced three turnovers, succeeded on both of their two-point conversion attempts, and ran a successful fake punt while trailing in the third quarter.

"When you're in a game like that and you're the underdog, you need to try to steal possessions," said Bridgewater coach Mike Clark. "Any time your team has nothing to lose, you've got to be willing to play that way. Maybe you learn something about yourself in the process."

Against a ranked opponent on the road, Bridgewater announced its intentions early. A fake punt kept alive a 90-yard drive to open the game’s scoring, and the Eagles went for two to take an 8-0 lead. Another fourth-down conversion keyed the scoring drive that put the Eagles up 25-14. They held on to defeat No. 18 Thomas More, 25-22. Bridgewater forced three turnovers.

Concordia-Moorhead converted a fourth down on its opening possession, which led to a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead over UW-Whitewater. The Cobbers never trailed. After the Warhawks tied the game at 10, Concordia-Moorhead responded immediately with a 71-yard touchdown run, followed by a two-point conversion. The Cobbers closed the game with a goal-line stand.

Those aggressive decisions can give your underdog team an edge on the scoreboard, but also a mental lift. Head coaches Birmingham, Clark, and Terry Horan each showed their players that they had faith in them to convert a fourth down, a fake, a two-point attempt; they also demonstrated that they believed that their players could overcome if any of those gutsy calls failed.

When you’re an underdog, you know that the pressure is on your opponent. Making a defense stay on the field longer than it thought it had to or outsmarting a ranked opponent in special teams can be deflating to a team that is accustomed to winning.

As Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians likes to say, “No risk it, no biscuit.”

The Blue Devils, Eagles, and Cobbers all took risks against ranked opponents on Saturday. Those risks paid off and shook up the national rankings. The next step will be for these three programs to carry this momentum forward and prove to themselves and the rest of the nation that one big win does not make their season.

"How big a win this is depends on what you do with it," said Clark. "That's the challenge we've got to face." 

Questions and Answers

Which conference impressed in Week 2?

How about the CCC going 5-1 this weekend? Becker fell to 0-2 with a Friday night loss, but every other member of the new Commonwealth Coast Conference was victorious in Week 2. Western New England and Endicott each earned their first wins of the season. The Golden Bears posted a convincing win, but the Gulls’ victory was controversial. John Glaser’s extra point with no time remaining gave Endicott a 29-28 win. Sheilan Velazquez hauled in the game-tying 31-yard touchdown at the goal line with zeroes on the clock. The 92-yard game-winning drive was keyed by a spectacular one-handed grab over double coverage made by Brendan Johnson. Curry, Nichols, and Salve Regina all improved to 2-0.  

Who had a career day?

Southwestern set a program record with an even 500 rushing yards in a 56-12 victory over McMurry. Shenandoah set a school record by scoring 61 points in a 61-14 win over N.C. Wesleyan. Wes Hundley passed for four touchdowns and rushed for over 100 yards, but the Earlham quarterback was outplayed by his counterpart at Hiram. Terriers quarterback Randy Tucker passed for 369 yards and six touchdowns and added two scores on the ground in a 63-41 win. Hiram set a program record with 628 yards of offense. RPI quarterback Ed Trimpert completed just 11 passes, but five of them went for touchdowns in the Transit Trophy victory over WPI. UW-La Crosse wideout Nick Holcomb caught 10 passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns.

Kyle Lowery had a 98-yard interception return score in Widener’s dominant 49-7 win over FDU-Florham. That wasn’t even the most impressive return of the game. Jordan Powell scored on an 18-yard fumble return, then topped Lowery with a 100-yard interception return. The Pride also held Malik Pressley to one yard on two catches.

What left us scratching our heads?

UW-Whitewater is 0-2 for first time since 1999. On the flip side, Oberlin is 2-0 for first time since 1989. Not often the Warhawks and Yeomen are mentioned in the same sentence. Oberlin was winless in 2016.

On tap

Here's what to watch for on D3football.com this week.

Later today-- new Top 25 poll released

Monday--Around the Nation podcast with Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan. Also, Play of the Week. Submit nominations today if you haven't already.

Tuesday/Wednesday--Around the Region columns

Thursday--Around the Nation column.

Friday--Quick Hits

Saturday--You know what Saturdays are for.

We've got great content coming at you all week, every week. Follow along and get to know D-III football beyond just your favorite team.

If you have ideas for an upcoming column or just want to talk some D-III football, get at me at @adamturer on Twitter or adam.turer@d3sports.com.

Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his second season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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