Change does Willamette good

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Jake Knecht caught six passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns Saturday against Whitworth. Last year Willamette averaged just 10 completions per game; this year they're averaging 30.
Willamette athletics photo 

Change has been good for Willamette.

The Bearcats, predominantly a running offense in the past, has been making a big splash nationally by airing it out. A 5-0 record to start the season doesn't hurt either.

Willamette, which dumped the Fly offense at the beginning of the season for a more wide-open passing game, is the top passing offense in Division III with an average of 393.80 yards per game. Castleton is the second ranked offense with 371.80 per contest. The Bearcats have embraced the change at the top as new head coach Glen Fowles, a 16-year assistant at Willamette, took over at the beginning of the season for Mark Speckman, the architect of the Fly, which involved sending a flanker in motion on every play and using misdirection in the run game.

"They definitely embraced some of the changes we made as far as schedule and practice," Fowles said. "We have good kids that embraced it and were able to buy in and that's helped us a ton."

The Bearcats were dealt some adversity last week as quarterback Josh Dean, who had thrown just three interceptions prior to Saturday's game, tossed three interceptions all in the first half, but the Bearcats were able to overcome it in a 38-24 win over Northwest Conference foe Whitworth. The Bearcats trailed 17-14 at halftime.

"It's one of those things, mistakes are going to happen," Fowles said. "We were able to overcome it because our defense was able to overcome it. The picks were bad. Some of them happened on tipped passes, some were completely unforced. It's all part of the game. The way you overcome it is by the defense, staying true to the course. Everyone knows it's a mistake. We kept some composure and worried about the play instead of ones passed up by in the first half."

In the second half, the Bearcats didn't turn the ball over and Dean led them to three touchdown drives, directly finishing two of them with touchdown passes. Dean finished with 392 yards passing on 23-of-41 and added 45 yards rushing. Jake Knecht was the big target as he caught six passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns. Willamette also mixed in a solid rushing attack by gaining 206 yards on 41 carries. Dylan Jones led the way with 131 yards on 22 carries.

Dean has been a major factor in the success of the Bearcats as he has completed 143 of 214 (66.8 percent) of his passes for 1,875 yards and 22 touchdowns. Dean is the nation's top offensive player in the nation with 382.80 yards per game and Dean leads the nation in passing with 375 yards.

"He's having a terrific season," Fowles said. "He's one of those guys from week to week the situation doesn't faze him. He does a really good job of keeping a steady approach. He keeps preparing better every week. He always does one thing more this week than he did. We're really fortunate. His accumulation of preparation helps us be in a good spot."

 Willamette will try to continue its undefeated season as it plays Lewis and Clark, who finished second in the NWC last season and has the reigning NWC Player of the Year in quarterback Keith Welch.

 "We've got to prepare well and got to be confident," Fowles said. "If we execute well, we're going to compete."

Bethel was prepared for crazy ending

Bethel coach Steve Johnson had his team prepared for an ending like the one Saturday. Well, sort of.

Jay Hilbrands' touchdown catch with no time remaining on the clock set up a decision for Bethel coach Steve Johnson.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com 

The Royals practice game-ending situations in the last two minutes of the game every Thursday. And for the past 10 seasons, the defense always shut down the offense. This past Thursday, the offense won when quarterback Erik Peterson found receiver Jay Hilbrands in the end zone for the winning score.

That carried over to Saturday against Concordia-Moorhead.

Down 14-7 with one minute, 22 seconds and on its own 29-yard line. The Royals had a big situation to overcome. With no time on the clock, Peterson found Hilbrands for a 9-yard touchdown in the far corner of the end zone. Johnson already pre-planned to go for the win on a two-point conversion if faced with the situation. Peterson hooked up with Mitch Hallstrom to give the Royals a 15-14 win in front of a large homecoming crowd of 5,124.

"The homecoming crowd was ridiculous and they stayed because it was close enough," Johnson said. "Concordia is good. It was just a physical pounding."

The game nearly ended for the Royals with the ball on the 17. Bethel fumbled and Concordia recovered with one second left, but were given new life when Concordia players came on to the field before the play was over.

"There’s a character piece that allowed us to win," Johnson said.

Now the No. 9 Royals have another big MIAC challenge in No. 4 St. Thomas Saturday in St. Paul. In the past three seasons, the Royals have finished one notch below the Tommies. St. Thomas has won the MIAC two straight years.

"I think it's going to be two teams that are really pretty good of taking care of business in their circle," Johnson said. "They've knocked us out of some stuff. They've grown a lot. They're the team to beat, we kind of like being the underdog, even though we're a little underdog."

Not only does this game have huge MIAC implications, but also a look ahead to the postseason.

"The winner of this game is going to have an unbelievable shot in the playoffs," Johnson said. "The loser of this game has a tough hole."

Behind the number


The last time the University of UW-Oshkosh was 5-0 to start a season. The No. 19 Titans breezed past UW-Eau Claire 50-13 and will host No.13 UW-Platteville Saturday.

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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