|Joe Green tipped one of his season-high 41
receptions to himself, scoring one of his seven touchdowns against
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
It’s not a surprise that the St. Norbert Green Knights are representing the Midwest Conference in the playoffs Saturday. St. Norbert has won the conference nine of the past 12 years under coach Jim Purtill.
But the Green Knights, in the words of the Dixie Chicks, took the long way around, starting the season 0-2 and with four games left in the season found itself in a four-way tie for second place. At 7-3 and the No. 8 seat, St. Norbert travels to Naperville, Ill. to take on No. 1 seed and No. 5-ranked North Central (10-0) in the opening round.
“It was quite the accomplishment for us this year,” Purtill said. “The way it looked with four games to go, you could not have predicted it. It was a very competitive league race because there were six, seven teams within one game of each other. You really didn’t know what to expect.”
While 7-3 is hardly St. Norbert’s best record it entered the playoffs with, Purtill said he can attest that his team is battle tested. The Green Knights have faced adversity in games and in the season and Purtill said he hopes that can help his unit.
“I’ve witnessed over the years that some good teams can through the season, they are never behind and things come pretty easy for them,” Purtill said. “Then in the playoffs, they get smacked in the face for the first time and you never know how that team is going to handle it. It’s probably the reason why some very good teams get beaten badly the first week of the season because a couple of things go wrong early and things quickly fall apart. My hope is we use our experience this season in the playoffs and have a chance to win.”
St. Norbert’s offense goes the way of its senior quarterback Rob Berger. Berger, who has been overshadowed in the Midwest Conference by Monmouth All-American Alex Tanney, has completed 60 percent of his passes (135-224-11, 2,003 yards and 25 touchdowns) and is also the Green Knights’ second leading rusher (98-632, 63.2 yards per game) in St. Norbert’s spread offense.
“He’s very good athlete and he can run and throw,” Purtill said. “He’s played at a high level in our seven victories and he’s made tremendous growth over the past three years. Since 1999, all of our starting quarterbacks at one point or another became first-team all-conference selections. We’ve had some very good players at that position. Rob’s as good as any of those guys. He’s as dangerous as any of those kids.”
Purtill said while his defense may not have a standout player, what they are is opportunistic. St. Norbert’s secondary has 19 interceptions and the defense has collected 16 fumbles, giving the Green Knights a plus-15 against its opponents in the turnover margin department.
“We have a solid defense and we play good team defense,” Purtill said. “We don’t have any All-American type kid, but we are very businesslike and we have a knack of making plays. We’re among the top 20 or so in the country in turnover margin and our defensive staff as stressed that category a lot this season.”
Purtill said his defense will make to make things happen in the playoffs for the Green Knights to have an opportunity to advance. He said there will be no question on if St. Norbert is battle tested.
“I’m very proud and very happy for this team,” Purtill said. “Our freshman, sophomore, juniors had never won a conference championship and didn’t know what this was like. It’s been really a treat to see them earn that experience.
“At one point, we asked them if you really want to do this, let’s get serious about how we get it done. One of my assistant coaches says hope is not a plan. We have a day by day concrete play where we all do our share. We had a disappointing start, but it’s been a neat thing to see the kids really battle back.”
While St. Norbert takes on North Central, here are the others playoff-bound teams from the Midwest region on Saturday, Nov. 20:
No. 15 Coe (9-1) at No. 18 Wheaton (9-1): Wheaton snagged a No. 2 seed in its region and will be at home against Coe. The Thunder, which finished second in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, lost to North Central in Week 10 during the Little Brass Bell game. Coe comes out of the IIAC, where it lost to nationally ranked Wartburg but beat No. 25 Central.
Benedictine (8-2) at No. 4 St. Thomas (10-0): Benedictine is the surprise winner of the Northern Athletics Conference, shaking off an early loss to North Park to join the playoff field. St. Thomas is a playoff veteran and beat St. Norbert 40-7 to open the season and edged another playoff team Bethel 10-6 during conference play.
No. 24 Franklin (9-1) at No. 1 UW-Whitewater (10-0): The Franklin Grizzlies rebounded from opening season loss to Carthage to reel off nine straight wins where it scored 42 points or more in each game to capture the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. Franklin’s reward is a No. 7 seed where the Grizzlies travel to the defending national champions, who are probably not happy they didn’t get a No. 1 seed.