|Ripon's Jake Marshall gets the last-second pitch
away to running back Brad Johnson.
Ripon athletics photo
You can tell it has been a crazy year in the Midwest Conference when the top team in the league is not named Monmouth or St. Norbert.
In fact, the two teams that have dominated the Midwest Conference are caught in a five-team logjam for second place in the MWC with Carroll, Grinnell and Illinois College at 4-2. The one team above it all – at least at this point – is the Ripon Red Hawks.
At 5-1 and 6-1 overall, the Red Hawks have been waiting in the wings for the past four years for a chance to win the Midwest Conference title, and now Ripon is in the driver’s seat. Ripon has finished second or third in the conference in the past four seasons and have not won the title outright since 2001.
But Red Hawks coach Ron Ernst will tell you, there are still three more games to play in the conference and the season has already proven that just about anything can happen.
“This has been as freaky of a year as I have seen,” Ernst said. “When you look at the standings with three weeks to go, there are still seven teams that can still win this thing. It is certainly not over by any means. We are sitting on the top of the conference, but we have three very tough opponents left to go. We have lot of work to go.”
If there is any team prepared for the three-game challenge, it’s Ripon. The Red Hawks, with its slot-bone, triple-read offense, can chew tons of time off the clock and control the game offensively, which is what they have been doing.
Ripon is averaging 42.1 points per game while churning out 435 yards of total offense per contest, 367 of those yards on the ground. The Red Hawks have been doing it with a cast they expected, starting with five returning starters on the offensive line led by All-Midwest Conference selection at tackle Joshua Novak and fullback T.J. Pierce, who is averaging 97.1 yards per game.
But the surprise has come from senior quarterback Jack Marshall. Ripon’s starter for the past two seasons, Matthew Miller, blew out his knee over the summer. Marshall entered the season with five games of experience over three years without a college completion.
Marshall, though, has turned into the team’s leader, averaging 79.7 yards per game rushing and another 65 yards passing per contest.
“Jake has done an outstanding job,” Ernst said. “He had not starting a game since high school, but Jake has been doing a phenomenal job making great decisions. We also returned all five of our offensive linemen so we had a lot of experience in front of him. Jake’s a great leader and the team has rallied around him and our kids have been executing very well.”
Ernst said he has been pleased with the team’s one-two punch at fullback with Pierce and Matt Schmalzer. Between them, they are rushing for more than 150 yards a game from the position.
“Each one brings something different to the table,” Ernst said. “T.J. is a smaller, quicker back. Matt is a bigger back and will carry two or three guys on his back and just rumble through you. We have a real nice one-two punch with those guys.”
Defensively, the Red Hawks are giving up 22.7 points per game, but Ernst said his defense has actually played better this season.
“That number is a little misleading because we’ve gotten up on some people pretty big and we played a lot of our younger kids. I’m head coach and defensive coordinator, so I want to shut people out every game. We have a lot of new faces on our defense and kids are playing really well. We’ve had some situation where our backs were against the wall and they have played well in those situations.”
Ernst lauded the play of junior linebacker Jared Anderson and senior defensive end Kyle Roy for their play. Anderson leads the Red Hawks in tackles with 59 while Roy has recorded 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for losses.
“Those two guys are probably playing the most consistent and at the highest level,” Ernst said. “They have a great work ethic and are very smart players. They are tough guys to block because they get off blocks well and their motors are always running. They are having good seasons.”
While Ripon has one big test left Oct. 30 against St. Norbert, Ernst said he doesn’t want his players circling that game on the schedule and forgetting about Illinois College this Saturday and Lawrence on Nov. 6.
Ripon’s only loss came in triple overtime to Monmouth, 51-45 two week ago. He said the coaching staff and the team decided to refocus so the promise of this season doesn’t slip away.
“We looked at our film to see what we could correct and decided we have not had intense practices leading up to it. The following week we really turned up the intensity in our practices and got back to basics. I think we sent the message to our kids clearly that we’re only going to accept a certain level of performance and effort and they’ve responded to that very well. Our kids are getting the message clear that we haven’t won anything yet and we haven’t earned anything yet.”
Ernst said the seniors have worked to keep the younger players on the team focused, which right now is on Illinois College. He said that focus could make the difference between winning the conference title and being an also-ran again.
“What I’m seeing in our seniors is a sense of reality,” Ernst said. “They are excited, but they know what’s at stake in these next three games and what can happen. This is a very level-headed senior group. They don’t get real high or low. They know we are the only team that controls its own destiny. I think that’s a safe thing to say. I think we have to look at every game as a playoff, do-or-die game.”