November 11, 2010

It was the Knights' day

Wartburg has shut down opposing offenses the entire season.

Even those faithful readers who’ve stuck with “Around the West” since the beginning of the Division III football season probably don’t remember the second item in my week one column, which was titled “Knights make a statement.”  Among other things, I wrote:

“Wartburg announced its candidacy for the IIAC title in stunning fashion on Saturday, dropping then-No. 17 Monmouth 27-7.  The Knights have always been known for excellent defense, but the number they did on an offense led by consensus preseason All-American Alex Tanney was something to behold.”

Now, in Week 11, just flip Monmouth for Central, switch Tanney to dual-threat Dutch quarterback Nate Snead, and you shouldn’t be at all surprised when I tell you that in a crucial showdown of top 25 teams, Wartburg’s defense forced a crucial fumble, set up two touchdowns, held Snead to 10-30 passing for 154 yards, and allowed the 13th-ranked Knights to clinch the IIAC title for the second time in three years.

As people who know me well will tell you, I love to look smart.

In all fairness to Central, the Dutch defense stepped up in a big way.  Despite the offense giving up a fumble that was returned to the Central 7-yard line and special teams giving up a blocked punt that was brought back to the 5 (both plays set up quick Wartburg scores), the Dutch led 17-14 until late in the fourth quarter.  In fact, prior to the Knights’ game-clinching 11 play, 85 yard drive, they’d mustered just 166 yards of offense in the entire game.

But Wartburg’s playmaking defense gave their offense plenty of chances to come back, holding Central to just 4-18 on third-down conversions.  As the cliché goes, good teams find ways to win, and Wartburg finally did on a magical final drive.  Running back Reese Thompson gained 57 yards rushing on the march, including a pair of conversions on third-and-short, before topping it off with the go-ahead score to win last weekend’s most exciting game

Still, the Knights’ offense absolutely must be able to move the ball better if they plan on advancing in the playoffs.  The West is chock-full of great offensive units this year, with Linfield, Cal Lutheran, St. Thomas, and the Whitewater behemoth all playing at or above the level Wartburg has been at all season.  Gaining 250 yards of offense is simply not going to cut it against top-tier competition.

That’s not to say the Knights haven’t shown flashes: in another playoff-like matchup earlier this season, Wartburg scored touchdowns on their first three possessions to jump out to a commanding lead over No. 15 Coe.  But those flashes will have to start appearing much more regularly if the Knights want to replicate their 2008 run to the quarterfinals.

In the meantime, Wartburg will continue to rely on their lockdown D.

And I’ll continue to look smart.

Going Stag
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps hasn’t won a SCIAC championship since 1970, has never made the NCAA playoffs, and last year’s 5-4 record was the Stags’ first winning season in seven years.  When longtime head coach Rick Candaele abruptly retired just before the start of the season, most people assumed that C-M-S would slide back into mediocrity.  But “most people” apparently didn’t include the interim head coach Steve Retzlaff, the team’s former defensive coordinator, who’s done a masterful job leading C-M-S to a 6-2 record heading into their season-ending showdown with campus rival Pomona-Pitzer.  On the strength of the SCIAC’s best rushing offense and defense, Retzlaff’s team has posted decisive victories over surprising Lewis & Clark and traditional power Occidental – the Stags’ first win against the Tigers in eight years.

Retzlaff has already done more than enough to get the “interim” removed from his title, but a win against Pomona-Pitzer – a team mired in a hugely disappointing 1-7 campaign – would make it all the more sweet.

Terry leaves La Crosse on a high
It’s been a tough week for the once-proud UW-La Crosse football program, the WIAC’s all-time leader in conference championships (33) and national championships (5).  The Eagles were 9-2 as recently as 2006, but they’ve backslid badly since then and are on pace for their second three-win season in three years.  Budget restrictions have meant that head coach Larry Terry is the only full-time member of his staff, and perhaps in an effort to shake up institutional complacency, Terry last week announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season.

Whether or not that announcement rallied the Eagles is tough for an outsider like me to say, but they did put together their finest performance of the season on Saturday, steamrolling UW-Eau Claire 49-14.  For La Crosse, a team that’s lost at least five games it easily could have won this year, demolishing the Blugolds was a terrific way to send out a head coach who’s given a tremendous amount to the Eagles’ program

Statistical Spotlight (West Region Exclusive)

A couple of highlights that didn’t quite make the cut for the national statistics item that D3football.com puts out every Tuesday:

Game of the Week
No. 19 Pacific Lutheran vs. Willamette (12:30 p.m. Pacific).
  There are a couple of games in the West this weekend where potential Pool C teams have a chance of slipping up, but none of them will be as evenly matched as this one, which features two squads tied for second place in the NWC.  A win likely sends PLU (7-1, 4-1 NWC) to its first playoff appearance in a decade, and the Lutes, who hold a victory over No. 17 Cal Lutheran in their pockets, have been steadily climbing in the polls the last several weeks.

Willamette, on the other hand, has largely flown under the radar since an embarrassing loss at Linfield in week five.  Since then, the Bearcats (7-2, 4-1) have rattled off five straight wins, averaging over 49 points and 473 yards of offense in the process.  And don’t say they’re not battle-tested either: PLU will be the fifth ranked team Willamette has faced this season, after traveling to then-No. 16 UW-Stevens Point, current No. 7 Hardin-Simmons, and aforementioned current No. 12 Linfield, while hosting then-NAIA No. 24 Southern Oregon.

Contact Me!
As a proud Willamette alum, you’d better believe I’m going to be at the Game of the Week.  Unfortunately, though, the internet connection at Sparks Stadium is iffy, so chances are that I’ll be missing out on a lot of terrific D-III football action this Saturday.  If you see anything I missed or have any comments, suggestions, or story ideas, please send me an e-mail at tim.walsh@d3sports.com.

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