Another regular season has come and gone, so I thought I would take this week’s final column to review and wrap up another fantastic season of Division III football Around the East.
Two of the conferences featured in the column, the Empire Eight and New Jersey Athletic Conference, debuted new alignments as we entered the 2015 season. Christopher Newport, Frostburg State, Salisbury and Wesley joined the NJAC; while Cortland State and Morrisville State moved into the E8.
These movements created two super competitive conferences. Just two weeks ago, it was theoretically possible there could have been a six-way tie for the E8 title.
Overall, when you include the Liberty League and Middle Atlantic Conference, not a single preseason favorite captured their conference’s championship outright. Albright took home the MAC title after being picked to finish at .500. St. Lawrence became the LL champs to dethrone four-time defending champion Hobart despite not beating them. Salisbury upset Wesley to capture the NJAC’s automatic bid, while Cortland State captured the E8 bid.
Each of the four conference winners and Wesley, who received an at large bid to the NCAA playoffs, which start Saturday. Seven others will also be in action this weekend in bowl games.
Best Team. I still don’t know. For most of the season, it was Wesley. But Salisbury (who beat Wesley) and Albright (who beat Salisbury) have good arguments too. Cortland State could jump into the conversation if they beat the Sea Gulls this weekend. Wesley would seem to have the best chance of advancing the farthest based on their draw in the bracket and remained number one in the regional rankings even after they were upset by Salisbury on November 7.
Best Shootout. Cortland State 61, Framingham St. 49. On September 12 these two team combined for 110 points and 1071 total yards of offense. The Red Dragons lead wasn’t safe until Matt Goodman returned a fumbled punt for a touchdown with just two seconds left in the game. Both teams earned playoff bids.
Biggest Upset. Salisbury 38, Wesley 35. The Sea Gulls knocked of the fourth-ranked team in the nation in Dover. Alex Potocko booted a 36-yard field goal just over two minutes left in the game and the Sea Gull defense was able to hold the top-ranked offense in D-III scoreless in the fourth quarter.
Biggest Surprise. WPI. The Engineers were picked toward the bottom of the LL standings but finished at 7-3 and by winning their last two and ECAC Bowl bid. It was their first winning season since 2008 and just the second in the last 17 seasons.
Biggest Disappointment. Ithaca lost its last five games after consecutive playoff appearances to finish at 4-6. Oh, and archrival Cortland State captured the E8 crown in their first year as a member of the conference. Runners’ up include Montclair State and Lycoming, traditional powers, who also finished 4-6.
Best Turnaround. St. John Fisher. The Cardinals lost three of their first four games, including blow outs to Thomas More (48-0), Cortland State (34-17) and Buffalo State (30-7). But the team turned it around and won their final six games to tie for the E8 title. The streak secured the program’s 15th consecutive winning season and a postseason ECAC Bowl bid this weekend.
Best Offensive Player. Joe Callahan. The Wesley quarterback, a Gagliardi finalist last season, leads the nation in many offensive categories this season: passing yards (3809,) passing efficiency (196.0), touchdowns (43), total offense (410.6) and point responsible for (29.6 a game.) The senior leads the only unit in the nation averaging over 600 yards a game of total offense.
Best Defensive Player. Nick Woodman, defensive end Utica. The senior recorded at least one sack in every game this season and ranks fourth in D-III with 13. At 6-foot-5 with athleticism, Woodman ended his career with 29 sacks and drew attention from NFL scouts.
Best All-Purpose Player. Leondre Simmon from St. Lawrence is among the national leaders in interceptions (T-16th with 6) in Saints defensive backfield. He is also a threat on offense with 21 receptions for 256 yards and seven touchdowns.
Most Clutch Play. Ryan Jones and Isaiah Taylor, Salisbury. With 58 seconds left in the game against Frostburg State, the Sea Gulls were trailing 27-21 and facing fourth-and-15 at their own 34-yard line. A loss meant giving back the NJAC title and an automatic bid. Jones avoided pressure stepped up and found Taylor, who made a one-handed grab in stride, on a crossing route. The receiver carried the ball down to the FSU 15. The pair hooked two plays and a penalty later from 10 yards out to clinch a 28-27 victory and conference crown.
Best Coaching Job. Duke Greco of Delaware Valley took an offense that returned no starters from last year’s playoff team and found a way to get it down The Aggies finished 8-2 and threated to take MAC title loss to Lycoming. He found creative ways to run the ball behind a youthful offensive line that powered the tenth best rushing attack in D-III (280 yd.gm.) They also managed to knock off MAC champion Albright and contenders Stevenson and Widener along the way.
Best Comeback. Rochester/Union or Delaware Valley/Lycoming. Take your pick. Union, who finished winless, went up 30-13 with 10:28 in the fourth quarter, but Justin Redfern fired three touchdown passes in the final 7:37. Especially painful were for the Dutch was a fumbled kickoff to set up the final touchdown and a blocked 37-yard field goal with 50 seconds left that would have tied the game.
Lycoming spoiled Delaware Valley’s Mac title hopes by comeback from a 42-21 Aggie advantage. Ryan Umpleby capped a 14-play, 99-yard drive with a touchdown catch from Chase Whiteman. The Warriors had to go for two because of a previous missed PAT but missed again. An onside kick recovery on the ensuing kickoff, setup a 32-yard field goal by Devon Flynn. Lyco won 43-42.
I’m sure I missed something or you have your own opinions. The best thing about these type of things is that they generate some conversation. Despite the end of the regular season, there is plenty of football to follow this week Around the East.
NCAA Division III Championships --- First Round
Salisbury (7-2, 7-1 NJAC) at Cortland State (8-2, 6-2 E8.) The “Switcheroo Bowl.” Salisbury was an E8 member last year, and won the NJAC this year. The Red Dragons were in the NJAC last year and won the E8 this year. The weather forecast looks promising for two teams that statistically at least look a-like. Both have scored a lot of points and give up a lot of points. Both have had that “Team of Destiny” type season where they’ve pulled games out at the end that they could have lost. One team’s destiny ends on Saturday, probably in an exciting shootout. The winner most likely heads to Oregon to take on Linfield.
St. Lawrence (8-2, 6-1 LL) at Mount Union (10-0, 9-0 OAC). It’s a tough draw for the Saints, who also played the Purple Raiders to start off in their last playoff appearance in 2010. This St. Lawrence team is miles ahead of the 2010 team but will it be enough to take down a Purple Power? Embrace the challenge and let rip. The Mount Union football team is not actually a “Machine” but they often play like it.
Norwich (6-4, 6-1 ECFC) at Albright (9-1, 8-1 MAC). The Lions host a Cadet team with most losses of any team in the field. Their reward for a victory would be a trip Mount Union.
Framingham State (9-1, 8-0 MASCAC) at Wesley (9-1, 8-1 NJAC). The first meeting for these two programs since the season opener back in 1995. The matchup features two of the best senior quarterbacks in the nation in Silva and Callahan. Not to mention a bunch of talented skill players on both sides. Both defenses will be tested, whomever gets more turnovers and forces more stops wins this one.
Middle Atlantic-Centennial Bowl Series
Moravian (8-2, 7-2 CC) at Delaware Valley (8-2, 7-2 MAC). The Aggies bounced back from a devastating loss to Lycoming by routing Widener 20-3. A victory here gives them their eighth nine-win season since 2004. It also gives that young offense another week of practice to prepare for next season. The Greyhounds have put together their best season since 2007
Stevenson (8-2, 7-2 MAC) at Muhlenberg (8-2, 7-2 CC). The Mustangs will be looking for a second straight ECAC Bowl win and school record for wins when they travel to the Allentown area Saturday. It’s just the program’s fifth season. The always tough Mules were maybe one point away from their second straight at large bid to the NCAAs (a 16-15 loss at Franklin and Marshall.) Statistically, the look a lot like previous Muhlenberg playoff entries with a dual threat quarterback and tough defense.
ECAC Bowl Games (all played at New Britain, Conn.)
WPI (7-3, 4-3 LL) vs. Kean (7-3, 6-3 NJAC). The “Most Improved Bowl.” The Cougars bounced back from consecutive 2-8 seasons to make their first postseason appearance since 2011. The Engineers were 3-7 last season.
St. John Fisher (7-3, 6-2 E8) vs. Westminster (8-2, 7-1 PAC). The Cardinals get a nice reward after a rough start. They’ll face a Titan program that posted its best season since their heyday as an NAIA power during late last century.
Buffalo State (7-3, 5-3 E8) vs. RPI (8-2, 6-1 LL). Interestingly, it’s the first time these two Upstate NY programs have met. The Bengals won six of their last seven after an injury at quarterback produced a 1-2 start. Rey Jordan, the E8 leader in interceptions with two returned for scores, tops a Buffalo St. defense that has allowed less and 285 yards a game. The balanced Engineers have won four straight since a 24-21 loss to St. Lawrence.
Alfred (7-3, 5-3 E8) vs. Fitchburg State (8-2, 6-2 MASCAC). The Saxons will look to bounce back after falling to St. John Fisher last week 23-9. It’s their third trip to an ECAC Bowl game in the last five seasons.