September 2, 2010

10 games to watch for 2010

Equipment has been handed out, reservations have been made and buses are ready and waiting to be loaded as the 2010 college football season gets underway this weekend ... and not a moment too soon.

Division III football is back and both coaches and players around the country have waited for the chance to ply their crafts on the fields of play.

This will be my fourth season writing for D3football.com, but the ninth year I have been involved with Division III competition. In the fall of 2002, I watched my first college football game on a college visit to Mount Union. They beat Marietta that day and Baldwin-Wallace one year later in the first college game I ever had the privilege of broadcasting.

For me personally, the privilege of covering Division III football does not come in watching young men enjoy playing a game. I have seen countless games with last-second touchdowns, turnovers at key junctures, blowouts and nail-biters, and the joy for me comes in getting to know the players and coaches who represent their schools.

That is what makes Division III special and fun. While seeing teams like Mount Union, UW-Whitewater, Wesley and Linfield is a rare privilege, watching schools like Case Western Reserve, Otterbein, Trine and others build a program and become successful is the best part.

Now that the 2010 season is upon us, it is time to get your tickets, buy a hot dog and enjoy football on the Road to Salem.

Here are ten games to watch for from the Great Lakes Region this season.

No. 10: Mount St. Joseph at Thomas More, Nov. 13: Last season, the Mount St. Joseph Lions fell to Thomas More 42-17 in the final week of the regular season and did not fair much better seven days later when they dropped a 42-14 decision to the Wittenberg Tigers in the first round of the playoffs. One loss spoiled Senior Day and a chance at winning the Bridge Bowl, while another cost the seniors any hope of a national championship.

This time around, the Lions will be looking to play the role of spoiler when they travel to Crestview Hills, Kentucky to play Thomas More. The running game will be key, as Thomas More battered the Lions in this department a season ago. The Lions managed minus-7 yards rushing and gave up 200 to the Saints.

No. 9: John Carroll at Case Western Reserve, Sept. 4: The post-Dan Whalen era at Case Western Reserve gets its official start against a team the Spartans have not faced since the 1988 season. The Spartans have not dropped a regular season game since the latter stages of the 2006 season and have gone 31-3 over the last three years, but the Blue Streaks lead the all-time series with a 9-7-1 record.

An important match-up to watch will take place at the line of scrimmage. Case's preseason All-American offensive lineman, Tony Opperman, will have to protect quarterback Joey Baum from the clutches of John Carroll senior defensive lineman Chukubueze “Chuck” Iheama, who had five, or one-quarter, of the Blue Streaks' sacks in 2009.

No. 8: Trine at UW-River Falls, Sept. 18: The Falcons' record from 2009 is 3-7, but what it does not say is how close they were to having a winning mark in a very physical and challenging league. They lost four games by four or fewer points and if a few bounces went their way, the Falcons would have been 7-3.

This game will be a good test for both the Trine Thunder and Falcons. Trine can pass and run the football efficiently and will be testing a defense that allowed their 2009 opponents to gain almost 280 yards-a-game through the air. On their way to the MIAA's first playoff win since Albion won the national championship in 1994, the Thunder passed for 186.6 yards per game, while gaining 232 on the ground.

Trine outgained opponents by an average of 47 yards per game in 2009.

No. 7: Trine at Adrian, Oct. 2: The Thunder finish off a tough month with a team that challenged them for the MIAA crown in 2009, the Adrian Bulldogs. After opening the new Fred Zollner Stadium on Sept. 2 against Manchester, the Thunder hit the road for three straight games at Bluffton, UW-River Falls and Adrian, following a bye week.

Last season, Trine used a consistent effort and punishing defense to eek out a 21-16 win over the Bulldogs. The Thunder, who got much-needed breathing room in the conference race with the win over Adrian, allowed the Bulldogs to gain 266 yards on 70 offensive plays. Trine racked up 279 yards on 49 plays and was able to overcome a 13-minute discrepancy in time of possession.

While these two teams meet in late September, the winner will have an inside track at the MIAA Championship and automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

No. 6 Wooster at Case Western Reserve, Oct. 23: It has been a few years since the Wooster Fighting Scots have won the Baird Brothers Trophy, presented annually to the winner of the Wooster-Case game and that does not sit too well with the resident college in Wayne County or its die-hard fans.

The Fighting Scots were never really in last season's meeting after allowing 21 first-quarter points to the Spartans, but the high-octane offense will have a new engine with Baum taking over the reigns. The good news for Case is Baum will have time to develop a rhythm with the offense. However, he will have to contend with an experienced Scots defense ready to atone for last season's 53-32 loss to Case and 5-5 record.

No. 5: Ohio Northern at Mount Union, Oct. 2: Picking Mount Union against anyone not named UW-Whitewater is always difficult to envision and that is because the Purple Raiders flat out play excellent football in their league. Granted, their national tournament record is outstanding, but the Purple Raiders once had a 100-plus game winning streak in the OAC. One that was snapped by Ohio Northern in 2005.

The Polar Bears will know exactly what type of team they have by the end of the Mount Union game. After their home/season opener against UW-River Falls, they travel to Otterbein, host Muskingum and travel to Mount Union. Should they get through that stretch with a 3-1 or 4-0 record, Ohio Northern will emerge as a legitimate playoff contender.

No. 4 UW-River Falls at Ohio Northern Sept. 2: This will be a nice gauge not only for both teams, but also their respective leagues as they have met in each of the last five Stagg Bowl championship games. Usually, it is Mount Union against Whitewater, but we will get an early-season look at how each team has progressed throughout camp in preparation for the rigors of conference football.

No. 3: Wittenberg at Allegheny, Sept. 25: In talking with several people around the North Coast Athletic Conference, Allegheny is the Cinderella pick to challenge Wittenberg and Wabash's stranglehold on the conference championship and why not? They have nine of 11 starters back on offense, including quarterback T.J. Salopek.

As a junior, Salopek completed 212 of 325 passes for 2,374 yards and 14 touchdowns against six interceptions in leading the Gators to an 8-2 record. Their two losses came at the hands of Wittenberg and Wabash. Salopek must find a way to avoid Wittenberg's pass rush, as he was sacked four times in the 2009 meeting.

For the Gators to fulfill their dream of getting back to the top of the NCAC and into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003, the defense must find a way to reduce the 20.3 points per game they allowed in 2009. Having six starters back on that side of the ball, including linebacker Bill Devlin, will help with that effort.

No. 2: Washington and Jefferson at Thomas More, Sept. 25: The easiest way to become a championship team is by knocking off the one currently on top of the mountain and that will be the case for Washington and Jefferson when the travel to Thomas More at the end of September. The Saints had emerged three years ago as a possible title contender and for the past two seasons, they have knocked Washington and Jefferson out of the top spot.

Last year, the game was a defensive struggle, with neither offense getting into much of a rhythm during the game. The teams combined for 392 yards of total offense, five fumbles and 14 penalties for 84 yards. Washington and Jefferson held a lead at the end of the first quarter and into halftime, but a 14-point third quarter by the Saints spoiled the upset bid.

No. 1: Wabash at Wittenberg, Nov. 6: The consensus NCAC Game of the Year will be played in Springfield, Ohio when the Wabash Little Giants roll into town to play the Wittenberg Tigers. Wabash had held the torch in the NCAC for the past few years, and not only in the league but also the postseason as well. However a 10-7 loss to Wittenberg smashed Wabash's title ambitions in 2009.

The big difference in last year's meeting was the running game. Wittenberg controlled the tempo of the game, while Wabash struggled to move the chains. If Wittenberg can again hold a 187-29 edge in rushing yards, they will win the NCAC outright for the second straight season.

All the predictions have been made and preseason practices completed, so now, let the games begin!

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Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Findlay, Ohio. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending the last 10 at The Courier in Findlay. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

2011 columnist: Dean Jackson
2007-10 columnist: Matt Florjancic

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