I first called Pacific Lutheran coach Scott Westering in the summer of 2009, when I was writing my first series of Northwest Conference previews for Kickoff. Westering wasn’t in the office, so I got his voicemail instead. After the usual introduction, the message closes like this:
“And remember, CHOOSE to make it a great day!”
That kind of optimism is typical of Westering, now in his seventh season as head coach after 23 years as an offensive assistant and later, coordinator. But there have been few reasons for optimism recently in Parkland – the Lutes were just 3-6 the past two seasons and, aside from a 7-2 record in 2007, haven’t sniffed an NWC title since 2001. Westering shuffled his staff this offseason, and when I talked with him this summer, even he sounded uneasy.
“The way we've done things the last 30-40 years, we can't do that anymore ... we've got to make changes,” Westering said.
Changes were made. Craig McCord, PLU’s defensive coordinator, made some schematic adjustments to a defense that was second-worst in the NWC in terms of both points and yardage allowed last season. Westering, who calls offensive plays, recommitted to running the football – something the Lutes have been terrible at in recent years.
The preliminary results have been stunning.
Westering’s team pulled off what can prematurely be described as the upset of the season last week, knocking off No. 15 Cal Lutheran 35-21. It’s a signature win for a program badly in need of one, leaves PLU as the NWC’s only undefeated team, and puts a huge dent in CLU’s hopes of hosting a first-round playoff game should they make it out of the SCIAC unscathed.
McCord’s defense didn’t return a single defensive player who was on the first or second all-conference teams last season, and Westering even spoke of this year’s defense as a “no-name” unit. Still, after two games there’s one name people should probably get to know: Trevor Fox.
The senior cornerback who leads Division III in interceptions per game (two) forced three huge turnovers against the Kingsmen – two interceptions and a fumble – all of them inside PLU territory and two of them inside the 25 yard line.
“The first [interception], the receiver slipped,” Fox said. “The second, he was running an out and I jumped the out … the QB had already thrown it, so it looks like he threw it right to me. The fumble was just a run to my side. I knew I was getting help, so I tried to strip the ball and it came out.”
On offense, the Lutes may have found a solution to their lingering questions at halfback with an eye-popping performance from senior Alec Simmons, who rushed for 225 yards on just 18 carries – PLU’s best single game performance since at least 2001. That, combined with Fox’s defense, allowed the Lutes to do something that traditional NWC rival Linfield was unable to do in their matchup with CLU just one week earlier: protect a late lead.
Twice the Kingsmen closed the deficit to seven points, scoring on the opening play of the second half and again with 9:51 left in the third. Both times, the Lutes responded. Simmons uncorked a 67 yard run the play after CLU’s opening touchdown, and Westering’s daring fake field goal later gave the Lutes another 14 point cushion.
“We relied on our offense to have our backs, and they knew we had theirs,” Fox said. “We were going to find a way to get it done.”
PLU’s win sets up a fascinating three-way battle at the top of the NWC between the Lutes, No. 15 Willamette and No. 16 Linfield – both of whom already have a loss, and both of whom must travel to PLU later this year.
That should leave Westering plenty of room to be optimistic.
A Crowning achievement
Crown brought back nine starters on both sides of the ball and started camp with more players than they’ve ever had in their program, but few would have predicted the season that the Storm are having this year. Crown began the year with a surprising 49-35 rout of the MIAC’s Carleton, followed that with a 48-14 blowout of Maranatha Baptist, then snuck past Martin Luther 42-41 on a stunning touchdown catch that earned play of the week honors. Quarterback Adam Hayes has been sensational, throwing for 14 touchdowns and just one interception through three games. In fact, Hayes’ six-touchdown performance against Martin Luther was his second this year.
Still, one interesting statistic could shed some light on the Storm’s surprising success. Crown is the least penalized team in Division III, with just five penalties for a total of 40 yards this season. By comparison, Carleton ranks 95th, Maranatha Baptist 144th, and Martin Luther 12th.
One for the ages
Augsburg’s incredible comeback at home against Hamline is the kind of material sports movies are made of. In a rivalry game, playing for a trophy (“The Hammer”), the Auggies went down 35-10 in the third quarter before started a comeback with two methodical drives for touchdowns. The visiting Pipers respond with a field goal to seemingly put the game out of reach, though a quick touchdown drive cut the lead back to 38-30 as the third quarter ended. A Hamline punt pinned Augsburg at its own 4-yard line, but the Auggies ripped off a 96-yard drive – converting on fourth-and-4 for good measure – to cut the lead to 38-36. After stopping the Pipers on downs at the Augsburg 27 with a little over five minutes left, the Auggies put the finishing touches on their miracle, converting another fourth down en route to the winning touchdown.
Chances are that neither team is going to forget that one soon.
Johnnies get back on track
After scoring just 17 points in regulation the previous week at UW-Eau Claire, St. John’s racked up the points and the yardage early in their MIAC opener against Concordia-Moorhead. The Johnnies didn’t punt until the 5:34 mark of the third quarter, scoring touchdowns on five of their first seven possessions – one of those a kneel-down to end the first half. Junior wideout Brent Graboski had an exceptional day, catching three passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
Whitewater continues to dominate
It’s been a crazy year for ranked teams so far, with Linfield, St. John’s and Cal Lutheran going down, Mary Hardin-Baylor coming close, and even Mount Union looking vulnerable. One team that hasn’t been challenged at all this year, though, is UW-Whitewater. While everyone knows just how good the Warhawks are this year, a couple of statistical points can help point out just how dominant they’ve been:
Point Differential: +128 (142-14)
Rushing Yards: +867 (1003-136)
Total Offense: +1069 (1666-597)
Rushing Yards/Game: 334.3 (5th nationally)
This is mind-boggling stuff, even if most of its coming against subpar NAIA competition. We’ll get a better indication of just how dominant Whitewater is once they begin WIAC play.
Game of the Week
No. 9 Coe vs. No. 7 Central. Though Wartburg is waiting in the wings, this game still looks likely to decide the IIAC championship. The Dutch blew out the Kohawks last year in Pella, but Coe made the deeper playoff run. This year’s game has even more intrigue – with no Division III schools on their nonconference schedule, the Kohawks may need a win over Central to justify their lofty early ranking.
With my Bearcats on a bye, I’ll have my eyes on as many games as I can this weekend. Still, I can’t watch them all, so if you have any comments, suggestions, or story ideas, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com.