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Big hills to climb

Johnny Peltz has had a big role in keeping Wheaton unbeaten.
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The distance between Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. and Wheaton College is about a 20-minute cab ride in the western Chicago suburbs, but also a world away in the realm of Division III football in how the two teams reached the playoffs this year.

Benedictine (6-4), co-champions of the NACC, and No. 8-ranked Wheaton (10-0), reigning CCIW champs, will share the same field when in the first round of the playoffs Saturday in games featuring Midwest teams.

Wheaton has been in the Top 25 all season long and jumped into the Top 10 with its victory over CCIW rival and No. 15-ranked North Central, which was not selected for the playoffs this year. The Thunder, buoyed by a strong defense, completed its first undefeated season since 2003.

Benedictine opened the season 1-4 before rallying to win its final five games of the season, including a dramatic 16-0 victory over Lakeland last Saturday in a showdown for the NACC title. The Eagles had to win the game by 15 points to overcome the conference's point-differential tiebreaker rule to capture the league's automatic playoff bid.

"It was a crazy game," said Benedictine coach Jon Cooper. "It was like we spotted them 15 points before it started. We shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times in the red zone until we got that touchdown early in the fourth quarter and then we were able to hold on for the win."

In one sense, Benedictine has been in the playoff mode since losing its NACC opener to Wisconsin Lutheran17-6 on Oct. 11. Cooper said even though his team is well accustomed to playing in do-or-die games this season, he does not particularly see that as an advantage against Wheaton.

"We've really had great leadership and our players' attitudes have been phenomenal," Cooper said. "We've played through a lot of injuries and we've gotten better through it all and just never gave up, like the cartoon of the crane trying to eat a frog as the frog grabbed its throat. Besides, just about any team can say they had to do what we had to do until about the last week of the season, but we took it down the last seconds of the game."

For Wheaton's coach Mike Swider, whose defense has held four of its 10 opponents to single-digit scoring this season and allowed only one point to score more than 30 points on them in 2014, it has been a total team effort this season.

"I think one of the things that's exciting about this football team is when you win in a variety of different ways," Swider said. "I don't think it was just offense, defense or special teams. All units play critical roles in us winning football games this year. That really helps when you're not depending on one phase of the game to win a game for you. We're playing well in all...

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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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