By Matt Florjancic
Trine has won back-to-back-to-back Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships with identical 6-0 records, meaning they have gone 18-0 en route to three automatic berths to the NCAA playoffs since 2008.
Despite all of that success in league play, the Thunder hosted just one home playoff game in that time (losing to seventh-seeded Wheaton) and have drawn questions about their strength of schedule after none of their 2010 opponents finished with a better than .500 record.
“Those are the 10 games that we played and you just prepare to win,” said Trine coach Matt Land. “We operate on a seven-day window. We play a nameless, faceless opponent each week and it’s no different now than it was Week 1. Our job is to go out and win the games that we have each week and to this group’s credit, they’ve won them.
“I don’t think so. The evidence doesn’t show that,” he added about whether the MIAA has gotten more respect in recent years. “We’re honored to represent the MIAA in the NCAA Tournament. There’s 32 teams left in the nation and we’re one of them. We’re going to put our head down and do our job and try and win this game on Saturday.”
Before earning the right to represent their conference in the NCAA Tournament, Trine had to come together as a group and learn about the type of team they had.
Thunder senior quarterback Eric Watt has been the unquestioned leader on offense. He finished the season second in the MIAA, averaging 225.8 passing yards per game. He started all ten games for Trine and threw for 28 touchdowns against just five interceptions.
When combining his passing and rushing statistics, Watt led the conference with 2,524 yards of total offense.
“We have 18 starters back and that should’ve been no secret to anyone,” Land said. “They’re an experienced group that has played in the playoffs, played on the road, played on the road in the playoffs. We had a 9½-hour trip up to River Falls, Wis., so the No. 1 thing that they’re going to take from the season is, if you execute offensively, don’t turn the ball over and force turnovers, you’re going to win a lot of games and we’ve been able to do that.
“It’s the same group of kids that have been playing primarily,” he added when talking about Trine’s first run to the postseason three years ago. “The kids that are playing now have played in the Wheaton game, the Case game and the Wittenberg game and now, they’re in their third straight NCAA playoffs. They’ve got a lot of experience and those things can’t do anything but prepare you.”
The experience in prior playoff games, which includes a road win over Case Western Reserve (University Athletic Association champions) in 2009, gives Land confidence heading into the first round of games Saturday afternoon.
“I think they’ve stepped up their level of play from where we’ve been each year,” he said. “This is no different; this year’s no different. We have 26 seniors for crying out loud. That’s a testament to the coaching staff that recruited them and worked with them for four years and the work that those kids have done.
“They have gotten better every year and that’s all you can ask out of your team,” added Land. “I think we’re a better playoff team this year than we were last year, but I thought we were a better playoff team last year than we were the year before. If we’re not going up, something’s wrong.”
Though Trine’s coach is confident in his team and their capabilities, Land knows the task of facing a DePauw team which got dismantled 47-0 against the Wabash Little Giants in the 117th Monon Bell Classic last Saturday. He feels it will be a nice test.
“They’re a good football team,” he said. “They’re 9-1, won their conference and they’re an athletic team with big, strong kids and it’s going to be a fun game. I enjoy the playoffs just because you get to play somebody different and it’s a fun experience for the kids. There’s no better way to find a national champion than to throw a bunch of teams in a bracket and play them out. You can’t ask for anything more than that.
“We’ve done it both ways,” Land concluded about playing either at home or on the road in the postseason. “The NCAA tells you what to do and you just go and do it. That’s really the mentality that we have. We have a football game on Saturday and just like the other ten, we’re going to approach it in the same manner.”
News and Notes
After being close to making the postseason with an at-large invitation following a couple strong regular seasons in the recent past, the Ohio Northern Polar Bears finally made the field. The Polar Bears went 9-1, with their lone setback coming at the hands of Mount Union earlier in the season. The program is led by quarterback Kyle Simmons (131-for-217 for 1,767 yards and a career-high 17 touchdown passes against five interceptions) and running back Brent Donley. Donley has gained a career-high 1,242 yards and scored 13 touchdowns on 222 carries this fall.
Tyler Owens, a senior defensive tackle for Thomas More, was named the Presidents’ Athletic Conference Player of the Year earlier this week. Owens has 55 total tackles, including 36 solo efforts, but the bulk of his work has taken place in the backfield of Thomas More opponents. Owens has 21.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks with a fumble recovery and a pair of forced fumbles. His tackles-for-loss have cost opponents 87 yards.
Wabash senior running back Derrick Yoder ended his collegiate career in style with a 164-yard, one-touchdown performance in the 117th Monon Bell Classic. Not only did Yoder and the Little Giants give DePauw their first loss of the year, they also registered the series’ first shutout since 1967.
Great Lakes Region Teams in D3football.com’s Top 25 Poll This Week:
No. 2 Mount Union (OAC): No change following a 52-0 win against Muskingum
No. 7 Ohio Northern (OAC): Up three spots after a 35-14 victory over Heidelberg
No. 9 Wittenberg (NCAC): No change following a 22-17 win at Wooster
No. 10 Thomas More (PAC): Up one spot after a 33-0 victory over Mount St. Joseph
No. 12 Trine (MIAA): Up two spots following a 58-16 win over Albion
No. 25 Wabash (NCAC): Into the Top 25 following a 47-0 victory against DePauw
Others receiving votes: Case Western Reserve (UAA)
Great Lakes Region Teams in the NCAA playoffs
Mount Union (Ohio Athletic Conference) hosts St. Lawrence
Thomas More (Presidents’ Athletic Conference) hosts Washington and Lee
Ohio Northern (OAC) hosts Wittenberg (North Coast Athletic Conference)
DePauw hosts Trine (Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association)
Games of the Week
Trine (10-0) at DePauw (9-1), Saturday, Noon: The Tigers must put a crushing defeat in the Monon Bell Classic behind them or they could become the second conference champion in as many years to fall victim to Trine on the road. The Thunder defeated then three-time UAA champions Case Western Reserve last season.
Wittenberg (10-0) at Ohio Northern (9-1), Saturday, Noon. The Tigers and Polar Bears have not met since the 1999 playoffs and although Wittenberg holds a 24-14-1 lead in the all-time series, Ohio Northern won that last playoff meeting 58-24 on the road.