|Macauley Kilbane runs away from Randolph-Macon wide receiver Deandre Gill en route to a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown. It was one of four touchdowns in the fourth quarter for the Blue Jays.
Johns Hopkins athletics photo
By Adam Turer
Expectations mean nothing until you’re hit in the mouth.
A trio of ranked teams opened Week 1 against quality opponents and each found itself in a struggle at halftime. In the second half of their respective games, Wesley, UW-Platteville, and Johns Hopkins all showed why they are consistent national powers. Their Week 1 opponents won a total of 26 games in 2017. In Week 1, their opponents were outscored in the second half, 105-14.
The Blue Jays trailed at home against Randolph-Macon, 24-21, at the break. The Yellow Jackets are an experienced team and they controlled the clock for most of the contest. No. 18 Johns Hopkins passed for five touchdowns and added a pick-six in the second half en route to a 63-31 victory.
“It was really not much of a halftime speech,” said JHU coach Jim Margraff. “I told our guys to play as hard as we can in the first half and we’ll figure it out at halftime. They played very well. I thought they played excellent.”
UW-Platteville is no stranger to opening the season far away from home. In 2016, the Pioneers traveled to Oregon to take on George Fox. Last year, they traveled to Virginia to take on Hampden-Sydney in their second game of the season. This year, UW-Platteville traveled to East Texas Baptist to take on a program on its fourth coaching staff in four seasons. The Tigers jumped out to a 37-17 halftime lead. They could smell an upset of the No. 17-ranked Pioneers.
“Hats off to East Texas Baptist. They came out with a tremendous amount of energy,” said UW-P coach Mike Emendorfer. “My mistake was we knew we were going to get punched in the mouth, we just didn’t know we were going to get it a number of times with their energy and execution. The second half was just a matter of us doing what we do, making plays in all three phases. We did what we were supposed to do; it just took us longer than we would have liked.”
“My halftime speech was ‘we made this mess, let’s clean this up. We have them right where we want them.’ I probably would have yelled and screamed if we had a 20-point lead. That’s when you need to keep them motivated.”
UW-Platteville coach Mike Emendorfer
The Pioneers outscored the Tigers 42-7 in the second half, erupting for 35 points in the third quarter. UW-Platteville has now won all 20 of its season openers under Emendorfer. The preparation for the comeback began on the first day of camp on Aug. 9.
“It’s about setting the tone on our first day reporting. I talked about that situation at the first team meeting. We’re going to find ourselves in a bind, find ourselves behind,” said Emendorfer. “It’s really about how you’re going to respond as a team. We knew we would be at that point and we possibly will be again. Yelling and screaming at each other or in frustration doesn’t really do anything for you. My halftime speech was ‘we made this mess, let’s clean this up. We have them right where we want them.’ I probably would have yelled and screamed if we had a 20-point lead. That’s when you need to keep them motivated.”
Every team approaches Week 1 differently. The main goal for every D-III program in a conference is to win its conference title and the corresponding automatic playoff berth. That provides some flexibility in a non-conference season opener. Many conferences, like the Centennial, provide just one non-con game on the schedule.
“I tell the guys that it’s a preseason game in some respects. You still want to win because you only get 10 games, but our goal is to win the Centennial Conference,” said Margraff. “We’re no closer to our goal now unless we learn something from that game.”
The Blue Jays have dominated the Centennial in recent years, earning seven straight playoff berths and losing just two conference games in the past seven seasons. UW-Platteville has faced greater challenges in the WIAC. The Pioneers have found themselves on the Pool C bubble each of the past seven seasons, only earning a bid twice during that span despite impressing in what has been the consensus top conference in D-III. Being a top three team in a top conference makes scheduling non-conference games a challenge.
“Our ultimate goal is to win the conference. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished the last seven or eight years, being in the conversation as one of the better teams in the nation,” said Emendorfer. “Whoever wins our conference championship is usually in top five in nation and competing for national championship. We also understand that we’ve been in Pool C too many years waiting for that final decision. Ultimately, we’d like to put ourselves in position where we don’t need to do that. With our league and our reputation, it’s hard to find Midwest teams to play us. It forces us to be creative and travel.”
Wesley is another nationally prominent program that has experience in adventures in scheduling. The Wolverines were an independent for many years, playing games from coast to coast. Since joining the NJAC in 2015, Wesley has continued to schedule nationally ranked opponents to fill the non-conference portion of the schedule. This year was no different, facing Delaware Valley for a third straight opener.
“When we were independent, we had to take on all comers. We saw the benefits of playing top competition and that hasn’t changed,” said Wesley coach Chip Knapp. “We’ll play anybody that our budget can handle. We have the experience that we really understand the benefits of playing top competition.”
This opener meant more to Wesley than any previous contest. It was the first game without Mike Drass on the sideline. The game was delayed 45 minutes by weather, then delayed again by lightning once the Wolverines offense took the field. A 13-10 halftime lead was extended out to a 34-10 victory in the only Week 1 game featuring two ranked opponents.
“Once we finally started the game, it was a relief to get the game going. We were wondering if we were ever going to play the game. Once we started, it had the feeling of another big game for Wesley College,” said Knapp. “It was definitely unusual not having Coach Drass there. There was a lot of work to do to get us to this point. Our program was on standstill for about a month.
“On Friday night in the fourth quarter, we finally got to feel the satisfaction and sense of relief once we accomplished what we set out to do. That was a big game for us. To come out on top, it was satisfying.”
Some ranked teams can afford to use that first game to get new players acclimated, or to rotate at positions where competition was not resolved in training camp. With limited—or in the case of UW-Platteville, non-existent—contact in preseason practices, it often takes a quarter or two to get up to speed.
“The first game is such a crapshoot. You just hope to find out a lot about yourselves,” said Margraff. “I was happy that we played hard and that we settled down in the second half. We seemed to calm down a little bit. I think being down at halftime against a good team, our guys don’t get nervous. At the same time, they realize they’ve got to make some adjustments. We learned that we can make adjustments.”
The Blue Jays can now look ahead to conference play. The Pioneers have two more non-conference games before the WIAC grind begins. Wesley has a bye before opening conference play. Week 1 almost certainly meant more to the Wolverines than it did to any other program in the nation.
“For us, it’s a huge game, playing a program like Del Val. We’re all in to try to win it. It’s definitely not a tune-up game. It has the feel of the big game,” said Knapp. “It was hard-earned just to get there. It felt good.”
First-half struggles don’t phase teams like these. Programs aspiring to be perennial top-25 teams can learn from these programs’ willingness to schedule tough non-conference games and ability to respond to a season-opening challenge.
“We felt confident. We didn’t feel like we were in trouble, we just had to play a little better and make some plays,” said Knapp. “We’ve been in these situations before. With our past success, there’s a confidence level that we have that things will work out if we just keep playing hard.”
This season, Around the Nation wants to spotlight players who have faced adversity while playing Division III football. As mentioned in the first column of this season, we all face challenges just to play D-III football. Some face more than others. Few faced a bigger obstacle this offseason than the players at Wesley, who suddenly lost their beloved head coach. Senior defensive back Cappadonna Miller leads us off:
ATN: What is the biggest moment of adversity you have faced as a Division III football player?
CM: I have to say my biggest moment of adversity as a Division lll football player would have been losing my head coach, Mike Drass.
ATN: How were you able to overcome it, and who helped you overcome it?
CM: The coaching staff and my teammates were the ones who helped me the most. Knowing how much success he brought and what he meant to the program and just the entire school, period. Everyone does a great job at keeping everything he had here still going.
If you or someone you know has a story of overcoming and would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.
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There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!