Halfway through the West Region season

New quarterback Matt Blanchard has barely skipped a beat at the helm of the UW-Whitewater offense.
Photo by Daryl Tessmann

It’s hard to believe that we’re already halfway done with the regular season, but with five and a half weeks left to go before Selection Sunday, that’s exactly where we are. Conference standings are a mess, and there’s obviously a lot of football still to be played. In fact, two great games this week alone – Bethel vs. St. John’s and Pacific Lutheran vs. Whitworth – could shake things up even more. With all that uncertainty, it must be too early to start talking about the playoffs.

Or is it?

A slate of big games across the West last Saturday provided the season’s first real glimpse of a playoff picture that’s just beginning to take shape. So rather than peek into my notoriously cloudy crystal ball, let’s take a look at the West Region’s playoff-caliber teams as they stand today.

The Lock
UW-Whitewater (4-0, 2-0 WIAC).
I got a couple of e-mails from UWW fans after a column two weeks ago in which I highlighted the Warhawks’ total statistical dominance this season. Whitewater has struggled mightily in their kicking game this year, as freshman Eric Kindler has converted just one of seven field goal attempts. That may hurt the Warhawks down the road, but they’re still winning by an average of just under 42 points per game. Next test: at UW-Eau Claire on Oct. 16.

The Conference Leaders
Lutheran (2-1, 1-0 SCIAC). In last weekend’s most thrilling finish seen by nobody east of the Rockies, the Kingsmen blocked Redlands’ 40-yard field goal attempt as time expired to preserve a 24-22 victory and take pole position in the three-way SCIAC title race. Physically, CLU can match up with just about any team in the country, but – their season opener against Linfield aside – the Kingsmen’s large crop of junior college transfers just hasn’t jelled yet, and the running back who almost single-handedly won the Linfield game has left the team for personal reasons. Fortunately, they have almost five weeks to prepare for a potential conference title showdown with Occidental. Next test: Occidental on Nov. 13.

Coe (5-0, 3-0 IIAC). In soccer, the easiest time to concede a goal is in the five minutes after your team has scored a goal. In football, the easiest time to lose a big game is the week after you win a big game – or perhaps the week before a big game. The Kohawks nearly got caught both ways on Saturday, looking backwards (at a 37-28 win over Central) and ahead (at an Oct. 16 showdown with Wartburg). But despite digging itself  a two-possession halftime deficit, Coe found a way to beat Dubuque, squeaking out a 24-22 victory. After a bye this weekend, they’ll play for the IIAC title. Next test: Wartburg on Oct. 16.

Linfield (2-1, 1-0 NWC). After two lackluster efforts to open the season, the Wildcats played at an entirely different level last Saturday, pummeling Willamette 35-7. Led by defensive end Eric Hedin, Linfield’s front seven physically dominated the Bearcats offensive line, registering six sacks, and quarterback Aaron Boehme passed for three touchdowns and ran for two more. Their only Achilles’ heel? Turnovers. Willamette couldn’t take advantage, but the team who does has a shot at bringing Linfield down. Next test: at Pacific Lutheran on Oct. 23.

St. Thomas (5-0, 3-0 MIAC). For those of you who weren’t among the 16,000-plus who witnessed the Division III game of the year so far at Clemens Stadium, I highly suggest you check out Pat Coleman’s outstanding coverage of the game on this site, complete with video interviews. It wasn’t pretty, but the Tommies finally got the Johnnie monkey of their backs in dramatic fashion on Saturday, and with as dominant as UST has been against everybody not named St. John’s recently, the Tommies are now playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Next test: Bethel on Oct. 23.

UW-Eau Claire (3-1, 1-0 WIAC). Even though the Blugolds probably aren’t going to finish first in the WIAC, they get placed in the “Leaders” category because of a pair of pretty impressive overtime wins, including last weekend’s 20-13 nailbiter against Stevens Point, the WIAC’s preseason number two. Freshman running back Joel Sweeney is averaging over 150 all-purpose yards per game, piling up 110 yards rushing and 120 yards receiving against UWSP. The defense is solid as well, but I’m still not quite sold that the Bluegolds are ready to nail down second place in the WIAC. Close games catch up with you eventually. Next test: UW-Whitewater on Oct. 16.

The Darkhorses
(4-0, 2-0 MIAC). With all the attention in the MIAC currently being given to St. Thomas and St. John’s, the Royals have quietly put together a 4-0 start to the season; though, to be fair, they haven’t exactly played the best competition. Since wins over Simpson, Concordia (Wis.), Carleton at St. Olaf won’t exactly strike fear into anyone, Bethel needs a win over St. John’s this weekend to enter the playoff picture. If they do beat the Johnnies this weekend, the Royals will all but end the Johnnies’ Pool C hopes – and set up an Oct. 23 date with St. Thomas for the MIAC title. Next test: St. John’s this Saturday.

Central (4-1, 2-1 IIAC). The IIAC’s preseason favorite doesn’t exactly fit into the “darkhorse” category very well, but since Coe and Wartburg will probably receive the majority of the IIAC’s coverage over the next several weeks, it’ll be easy to forget about the Dutch, who rebounded from their loss to Coe by pounding Cornell 52-0 last weekend. At this point, Central looks to be near the front of the line for a Pool C bid – though a loss to Wartburg would relegate them into an ever-increasing pile of very good two-loss teams. Next test: Wartburg on Nov. 6.

Pacific Lutheran (3-0, 1-0 NWC). Of all the teams mentioned in this column, probably nobody is a bigger question mark than the Lutes, who are 3-0 for only the second time since 2000. PLU’s win over Cal Lutheran is big to be sure, but the Lutes needed late game heroics to beat two mediocre teams – Hamline (27-20) and Puget Sound (31-28). Speaking of heroes, if you haven’t heard of PLU wideout Greg Ford, keep an eye on the three-time All-NWC selection, who’s on pace for his second straight season with over 1100 yards receiving. Next test: Whitworth this Saturday.

Wartburg (4-0, 2-0 IIAC). Coming off a disappointing 2009 campaign, nobody was quite sure what to expect out of the Knights this year – except that their defense would, as usual, be very good. Four games into the season, Wartburg’s defense hasn’t been just very good, it’s been exceptional. Last week, for example, the Knights held Loras to 82 yards rushing on 43 attempts (1.9 yards per rush), allowed 48 yards through the air on 5-for-22 passing, and forced two turnovers. Those are championship-level numbers, and they’ve set up Wartburg to be a contender. Next test: at Coe on Oct. 16.

Teams Who Aren’t Dead (Yet)
Redlands (2-1, 0-1 SCIAC), St. John’s (3-2, 2-1 MIAC), Willamette (2-2, 0-1 NWC).

Contact Me!
I’ll be taking in the view from the press box at Pacific University’s Lincoln Park Stadium this weekend, but as always, if you see anything I miss or have any comments, suggestions, or story ideas, please send me an e-mail at tim.walsh@d3sports.com.

Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith has covered Division III sports for more than five years. He writes for multiple publications, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and lives in southern Wisconsin near UW-Whitewater, where he graduated with a degree in print journalism.

2011-12 columns: Jason Galleske
2010: Tim Walsh
2003-09: Adam Johnson
1999-2000: Don Stoner 

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