October 2, 2013

After chaotic summer, Maroons avoid falling

More news about: Chicago

It must seem like a whirlwind for Chris Wilkerson and the University of Chicago Maroons, or no more than a trial by fire at the school know for brilliant students and faculty these days than its football team.

But Wilkerson, just three months removed from his assistant coaching duties at Dartmouth in the Ivy League, has his team on the upswing with a 4-0 record as they prepared for one of its biggest road tests at Memphis against 3-1 Rhodes.

"I'm just excited about the opportunity," said Wilkerson, who has been head coach of Chicago since July 31. "The University of Chicago academically speaks for itself. My athletic director Erin McDermott has just been amazing and we're just beginning to build a solid foundation here."

For Wilkerson to sell his program to a group of players who were expecting to be coached by longtime head man Dick Maloney before he retired in June, it also helps to win your first four games. In that streak were two 2012 playoff teams – defending Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference champions Concordia-Chicago and Elmhurst, which was nationally ranked with Chicago beat them 10-0.

Wilkerson said the 4-0 start had nothing to do with tricks and mirrors but getting but sticking to fundamentals.

"It really has been a team effort on offense and defense," Wilkerson said. "When it all comes down to it, it really is all about fundamentals. With all the spread offenses around, if you can run, throw, catch the ball and tackle, you've got a chance to be successful. We're playing to the strength of our players, bend but don't break on defense that has worked for us."

Two of the things that have made Wilkerson's transition and little easier are a senior quarterback in Vincent Cortina and a ball hawking defense. While Cortina's 112 yards per game passing or completing 52.7 percent passing won't make most football watcher excited, Wilkerson said he pleased with his quarterback’s six touchdown passes against two interceptions.

On the other hand, the defense has grabbed 12 turnovers from opponents in four games, six interceptions and six fumble recovers.

Last Saturday's game against Kalamazoo could be seen as a virtual microcosm of the Chicago's season so far. Down 14-9 at halftime, Cortina stunned the Kalamazoo defense by racing 42 yards for a touchdown to give the Maroons the lead again.

Later in the quarter on defense, Chris Dengler picked up a Kalamazoo fumbled and raced 32 yards for another Maroon score and Chicago kept the momentum for the rest of the game in a 31-17 victory.

"We're really old school," Wilkerson said. "On offense, we're under the center with a fullback in the backfield and at least one tight end in the formation. We've been really efficient blocking people and taking care of the football.

"We emphasize good, sound hard-nose football on defense. And we want our special teams to be special and create good field position for us so that's always an emphasis. Our defensive coordinator Ernest Moore and our other coaches have done a really good job. They have the fireman's mentality of when that bell rings it's time to do whatever it takes to get the job done and get off the field."

Running back Zak Ross-Nash is a legitimate weapon for Chicago on offense, averaging nearly four yards a carry and 105.5 yards a game.

"Zak is a tough, hard-nosed runner for us," Wilkerson said. "He's big and physical, and enjoys run downhill. He's been pretty productive for us this year on offense."

While Chicago is the only undefeated team in the University Athletic Association, Wilkerson said he believes the league is very balanced. Washington University is 2-2 but those losses came at the hands of two nationally ranked teams – No. 12 UW-Whitewater and No. 20 Coe.

Wilkerson would not stray from the "next game is the most important game" mantra. And talk of being a possible Pool B team trying to make the playoffs, well, that's getting way ahead of ourselves.

"We're only four games into the season," Wilkerson said. "Honestly, Rhodes is the best football team we've seen on film this year. They have a three-headed monster at tailback which will be our biggest challenge. We talk a lot in our program about controlling the controllables. That's what we concentrate on, controlling the things we can control."

Wilkerson has not had much time to control a lot of things at Chicago, but judging from the Maroons start, there are many fans who want him to keep doing what he's doing.

Franklin scores 80 points

While scoring 80 points in a football game has happened before, it is still unusual enough to make note of it, as of No. 14 Franklin's 80-14 victory over Earlham in Richmond, Ind. last Saturday. Quarterback Jonny West went 23-for-32 for 287 yards and five touchdowns in the first half.

In Franklin's defense, the Grizzlies played four quarterbacks, as 12 running backs carried the football and 10 receivers caught at least one pass. In long run, Franklin just hasn't been a very good matchup for Earlham.

Since Earlham joined the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, the Grizzlies have beaten the Quakers 60-0 in 2010, 55-0 in 2011 and 70-20 last year.

Statistical leaders

Picking up on a handful of national statistical leaders from the Midwest, North Central's quarterback Spencer Stanek is averaging 378 yards per game in total offense, fourth best in the nation, while leading the Cardinals offense to 554.3 yards in total offense, seventh best in the country.

Monmouth senior running back Trey Yocum is having another banner season, so far averaging 160.7 yards per game on ground after September contests.

Watch this Game

Benedictine (2-1) at Concordia, Wis. (1-2) – Concordia, Wis. opens Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference play as the favorites to win the league crowd, despite the 1-2 start. Benedictine, though, has a win over a pretty good Kalamazoo team on Sept. 21. It also briefly led and scored 27 points against No. 15-ranked Wheaton in a season-opening loss. It's the most points Wheaton has given up all season.

Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss

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