October 24, 2012

Ex-NFL coach sees good in D-III

More news about: Millsaps
Coach Aaron Pelch got a taste of the NFL with the Oakland Raiders in the 2009 season before returning to Millsaps, where he was an assistant from 2006 to 2008.
Millsaps athletics photo

Through seven games, Millsaps might be the quietest 6-1 team in the nation. After a quick 4-0 start, the Majors out of the newly formed Southern Athletic Association, likely wouldn't have been able to stay under the radar had they not lost Huntington on Oct. 6.

With three games to play, Millsaps has enjoyed the ability to have a quiet confidence moving forward. After two convincing victories over Sewanee and Rhodes, the Majors have clinched at least a share of the SAA title and can likely control its own destiny of a return to the playoffs by winning out.

That confidence starts at the top with third-year head coach Aaron Pelch. It doesn't take long to understand how much love the coach has for his program and players than with just a short phone conversation. He loves his team and talking about his players individually and how they fit within the scope of the program's goal to be a better team every week.

"I can tell you that he loves every single guy on our team; it's hard to even explain how much," said senior quarterback Garrett Pinciotti. "I wouldn't want to be coached by anyone else. He's definitely a motivator. He's very straightforward, if we play well he tells us, and if we don't, we'll definitely hear about it."

Pelch loved Millsaps and the student-athletes so much he left the glamours of the NFL and the Oakland Raiders following the 2009 season to take over as the Majors' leader. He served as an assistant on Mike Dubose's staff at Millsaps from 2006 to 2008 before getting the NFL opportunity. When Dubose took a spot on the University of Memphis coaching staff prior to the 2009 season, Pelch came back.

If the average football fan heard that story, they would likely think he's crazy. Who would leave the luxuries of the NFL to coach ... a Division III school? But after talking to Pelch, it's really quite simple.

"It's going to be a question that I always get, but the answer is, there's something to be said about the quality of life you have as a Division III coach," Pelch said. "The people you are able to surround yourself with, good people and good kids committed not only to football, but what they want to be when they grow up and what kind of person they want to be."

Pinciotti and sophomore defensive end Zach Bell are taking the personality of their head coach; when asked about their team, both players love to talk about their teammates. And, both are confident in Millsaps' ability as a football team, which is conveyed in their distaste to face each other in practice as offensive and defensive units.
"It's so much fun to watch [the offense] from the sidelines every week. I just thank God that we don't have to prepare for them," said Bell. "I think Garrett's a little lighter on his feet this year, has a little more swagger and likes the offense we're running."

Pinciotti said he feels the reciprocal effect.

"It's miserable going against them in practice, when I watch them in the game I know what the other team is going though," said Pinciotti. "They put on a show they're a ton of fun to watch, and as an offense we know we don't have to go outscore people."

Balance has been a factor in Millsaps' 6-1 record with the offense averaging 465 yards per game and the Majors' defense holding opponents to 327.4 yards per contest. Pinciotti has thrown for 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions thus far through his senior season while Bell, in just his second year, leads the team with 45 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

"Zach is a very emotional, very talented and instinctive football player, he's so fun to watch, and he's a great playmaker," Pelch said. "And [Garrett] has a great fundamental understanding of the game and what defenses are trying to do."

Millsaps has three obstacles in the way of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008: Trinity, Austin and Birmingham-Southern. The Majors have a 1.5 game lead in the SAA with the BSC finale determining whether or not they will have to share the first-year title.

Both Pinciotti and Bell said they wouldn't like to share the title with anyone else, but at the same time their thoughts are on larger things.

"We're definitely excited as a team but not satisfied, we want that title outright, and BSC will have to come to our house," said Bell. "We want to be 8-1 when that game arrives, and we want that ring, but more we want to move on to the week after that."

Pinciotti said the mentality of the team moving towards the sole SAA championship and the NCAA playoffs is a process.

"I'll be honest, I don't want to share, but I don't really care about that – we have to beat Trinity," he said. "Once we do that, we'll move on and go one at a time."

At 6-1 the Majors aren't receiving any votes in the polls, but if they pull off three victories to close the season, a lack of ranking will be a distant memory to a program looking to return to playoff form.

"When you have 250 teams playing in Division III all clamoring for attention, it's really difficult. We had our opportunity to get in the conversation with Huntingdon, and we played poorly," said Pelch. "We lost, so people begin to doubt how good you are, and with good reason. I don't think we feel slighted, but we missed an opportunity to show how good we were, and I hope we can close the season where people are able to see it for themselves."

The Majors may or may not run the table the next three weeks and make the playoffs. But one thing is for certain: They have a coach leading the program that grasps the concept of Division III. And, coming from a man who graduated from public Weber State in Utah and left the chartered flights of the NFL for the bus rides in the south, the Majors have a major find in Aaron Pelch.

"My first experience as an assistant at Millsaps was my first at the small-college level or even a private school," Pelch said. "But I loved it, we won a lot of games, and that was a part of it. But the kids I worked with were different; people don't understand D3 if they've never been in it and the collective experience of Millsaps between the players, parents and administration was what was great about my time here, and that's what brought me back."

ASC roundup

Louisiana Colege avoided the scare of the nation's top offense by shutting down Sul Ross' A.J. Springer and Dominique Carson for the most part in the Wildcats' 41-24 win over the Lobos in Alpine on Saturday. Carson struggled with the LC defense, gaining only 30 yards on 15 carries, but did manage to add his 22nd touchdown of the season on a reception. But, the story was the Wildcats who have settled back into a groove with 513 yards of total offense while improving to 6-2 on the season.

With Mary Hardin-Baylor's win over Hardin-Simmons, Louisiana College must take that coveted eighth win (Wildcats have finished 7-3 the last four seasons) by defeating Texas Lutheran, Mississippi College and its toughest task Nov. 10 against HSU.

Hardin-Simmons led 32-31 over No. 2 UMHB in Belton, but as the Cru does, it took over in the fourth quarter and scored the last 14 points of the contest to take the victory and avoid any blemish on their record. Senior quarterback LiDarral Bailey threw for 250 yards and rushed for 172 in the win while linebacker Javicz Jones had an All-America caliber game with 14 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, two interceptions and a sack ... those were not season statistics – that happened Saturday.

East Texas Baptist took a 52-28 win over Howard Payne behind Seth Hubbard's 450-yard passing day while Mississippi College snapped a 4-game losing skid by sending Texas Lutheran on a 3-game slide by a score of 24-21.

SAA roundup

Sewanee turned heads by thumping a reeling Birmingham-Southern who just three weeks ago was in the playoff picture. However, after a tough loss to top 10 Wesley and to Trinity, the Sewanee Tigers made things worse for the Panthers. They dominated the clock with a 35:16 time of possession, tallied 267 rushing yards on 61 carries, and made the most of only five passing completions by averaging 26.4 yards per catch for their marquee win of the season. Sewanee has a chance to finish with a respectable 5-5 record if it can defeat Rhodes and Trinity in the final two games of the season.

Centre also played spoiler Saturday just as independent Trinity appeared to be back on track, the Colonels stomped on the Tigers' hearts with a 31-14 win. Trinity dropped to 4-3 leaving the team virtually no chance at a playoff berth come November. The Colonel defense picked off four Tiger passes (two from Casey Vatter) and enjoyed a 147-yard rushing performance from Monte Scotton in the win.

What to watch for

No. 16 Huntingdon plays host to No. 5 Wesley. Wesley took a tough loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor earlier in the season and has escaped tough games from Louisiana College (W, 25-22 on Sept. 22) and Birmingham-Southern (W, 26-17 on Oct. 6), but can they hold off another ranked opponent Saturday? Huntindgon should be well rested after three weeks since the Hawks' last contest, but whether they will be game-sharp with that much of a layoff remains to be seen.

Sul Ross has put on some Big XII-esque shootouts this season and still has a chance to post its first winning record since joining the American Southwest Conference since 1996. Another shootout could be in order when the Lobos travel to Abilene to face Hardin-Simmons; the Lobos have given up an astounding average of 50 points per contest defensively while the Cowboys have allowed an average of just over 30 points per contest.

Millsaps has two tough games left out of its final three, and the Majors could use the momentum of a victory Saturday in San Antonio against Trinity in their quest for their first playoff berth since 2008; Trinity will try to bounce back from disappointment as it has proved it can this season already.

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Andee Djuric

Andee Djuric is a freelance writer and copy editor currently based in Virginia. She has 13 years experience covering sports for multiple metropolitan daily newspapers in the southeast. She is a graduate of Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., with a B.A. in English.
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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