By Clyde Hughes
|Devin Leas was Trine's leading rusher in its last
loss, in the playoffs last year at Wittenberg. But the Thunder have
a couple of running backs starting ahead of him.
d3photography.com file photo by David Rich
There will be no surrender, or a white flag of moral victory carried into or out of UW-Whitewater’s Perkins Stadium on Saturday when the Trine Thunder, of Angola, Ind., play the No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Warhawks.
Forget about any kudos No. 12-ranked Trine has given the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association by winning a first-round playoff game for the second year in the row by beating DePauw on the road 45-35 last year. Trine head coach Matt Land will tell you, frankly, that’s so last year. Trine whipped Case Western Reserve 51-38 in the first round in 2009.
“It’s hard to win a playoff game, let along to win a playoff game on the road,” Land said. “It’s something that you can build on throughout the season, but winning a playoff game isn’t good enough anymore. We’ve done that. We have to continue to get better and advance our program. That’s what we’ve been talking about.”
Land said he is happy with what Trine has been able to accomplish in the MIAA. The Thunder has won three straight conference titles after Land took over a 0-10 team in 2006, when the school was known at Tri-State University. But he said his team should not settle on MIAA wins and an occasional playoff victory. He said the Thunder has higher goals, and those goals don’t get any higher than taking on UW-Whitewater.
In short, Land said UW-Whitewater is where Trine wants to be.
“We didn’t come here to win conference titles,” Land said. “We want to win national titles. We’re still working towards that. To do that, you have to win your conference and represent it well in the playoffs. We take that honor with great regard.”
So, just how do you beat a perennial national power like Whitewater? Land said Trine needs to do what the Thunder does best, first and foremost.
“Nothing we do here is rocket science,” Land said of his team, which is averaging more than 500 yards in total offense a game and averages 47.5 points a game. “You have to play better than the team you’re playing against. The fact that we’re playing Whitewater is not the driving force behind what we do. We play a nameless, faceless opponent each week. Whitewater is a great football team and they have a great coaching staff, but we can’t change how we prepare for a game each week.”
Land said he’s certainly not downplaying taking on the Warhawks. He said it will be a great challenge for the Thunder to duplicate the numbers they have produced all year while going 11-0, but the Thunder will be prepared to try to do just that.
“It’s the biggest game we’ve had in five years,” Land said. “It’s big when you’re playing the defending national champion and No. 1 team in the country with a pretty good football team. It’s all we can ask for. A lot of people want to make our seed and strength of schedule a topic of conversation.
“They fail to remember we’re talking about student-athletes here and we’re a pretty good football team getting ready to play another pretty good football team. There are only 16 teams left. You’re not going to get a patsy anywhere. This is an opportunity for us to play the best. In order to be the best, which is what we want to be, you have to beat the best.”
Trine will try to do that behind three-year starter Eric Watt at quarterback, one of 10 finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, given to the top student-athlete in Division III football. Watt has accounted for 36 touchdowns this season, 31 of them passing while throwing for 2,597 yards (171-for-256, five interceptions).
“He started last three years and has a 29-1 record and 2-2 in the playoffs,” Land said. “He’s a great football player, a great leader and has a 3.6 GPA. I think he’s one of the best players in country. He’s a great player but he’s an even better person.”
Paul Curtis has been on the receiving end of 11 of those touchdown passes while JaVontae Hence and Thomas Wynn have caught nine scoring passes each.
Hence has also rushed for another seven touchdowns. Back Kent Biller leads a balanced running attack, rushing for 838 yards on 119 carries (7 yards per carry).
|Eric Watt has been promoted to Gagliardi Trophy
voters all season and has a chance to live up to that
d3photography.com file photo by David Rich
“It’s no secret that we want to get (Curtis and Hence) the ball,” Land said. “There’s an age old question that when you have a lot of great football players, how do you get the ball to each one. We don’t. Our kids don’t care.
“The past two weeks, Paul had almost had 400 yards receiving and four touchdowns. Last week, he had two catches for 25 yards and JaVontae and over 150 yards and two touchdowns. Its pick your poison. If you worry about those two guys, Kent Biller will run for 100 yards on you. We want to be balanced and that’s by design. We want people to defend the entire field against us, vertically and horizontally. You can’t cheat or roll to one person over because our quarterback will go through his progressions and find the open person.”
Defensively Trine has been sparked by defensive back Aaron Selking, who has picked off seven passes and leads the Thunder in tackles. Land said Selking is an example of a senior class that continued to improve as a group each year, allowing Trine to advance along with them.
“He’s another three-year starter who is an outstanding football player,” Land said. “If you can say every year that your senior class has gotten better, I think you won’t have a problem saying that you now have a program.”
Land said this senior class has helped lead Trine to three consecutive years of national rankings and two playoff wins, but added that it’s important for this group to take the next step with another playoff victory, even if it means trying to defeat the defending national champions in their den. Close won’t be good enough, Land said.
“There are no moral victories,” Land said. “Whoever made up that cliché lost the game.”