Not ready to retire

More news about: Illinois Wesleyan
Ryan Jenkins has made life difficult on Illinois Wesleyan opponents.
IWU athletics photo

By Jason Bailey

It wasn’t the traditional form of senior leadership, but Illinois Wesleyan defensive end Ryan Jenkins preserved his tongue-in-cheek nickname for at least another week after two crucial stops helped the Titans earn their second playoff berth in three years.

“Grandpa” isn’t ready to retire.

The fifth-year senior who led the CCIW with 8.5 sacks after missing last season because of injury sparks an experienced unit that hosts Monmouth in an intriguing first-round playoff matchup. The Titans (9-1, 6-1 CCIW) are ranked eighth in Division III defense after allowing 11.3 points per game while the Fighting Scots (9-1, 9-0 MWC) average a nation-best 49.3 points behind superstar quarterback Alex Tanney.

First-year defensive coordinator Travis Rundle said coaching a defense with nine senior starters makes everything easier because they’re playing with my-career-is-about-to-end intensity.

“Throughout the year it’s almost been a different guy (every time) making a play when our backs are against the wall,” Rundle said. “That’s huge. Having somebody step up and rise to the occasion, saying ‘Hey I’m going to end it on this play.’ That’s obviously why we’re in the playoffs.”

Illinois Wesleyan knew it needed three wins to make the postseason after a shutout loss against CCIW champion North Central, and Jenkins delivered with decisive fourth-quarter plays in consecutive one-possession victories. A fourth-down sack against Millikin and forced fumble against Carthage reinforced that he’s at full speed despite playing with 10 screws in his ankle after breaking his fibula and dislocating his ankle in a 2010 preseason scrimmage.

Scout's take

It can be overwhelming to prepare for an explosive Monmouth offense that broke the 50-point barrier seven times this season. Senior wide receiver Mike Blodgett (102 receptions, 1,554 yards, 16 TD) and sophomore running back Trey Yocum (1,332 rushing yards, school-record 21 combined TDs) are dangerous, but slowing senior quarterback Alex Tanney is the real dilemma.

Since Monmouth lost its season opener to Wartburg, St. Norbert is the only team to have any success. Even though the Green Knights lost 10-3, defensive coordinator Bob Forgrave created a blueprint other teams might follow by quickly applying pressure on Tanney with zone blitzes:

“He’s got a great arm, and I know he’s going to get some NFL looks. The ball comes out of his hand fast and he does throw a rocket. He’s good. There’s no question. ... You give any quarterback time to throw the ball and they’re going to find open receivers. And Tanney can throw into small windows. It’s no really big secret. ... He’s used to finding somebody in the seam and he puts it right in there. You can’t give him a bunch of time to throw the football. We want him to catch it and release it. ...We were just able to neutralize him and force him into a short passing game, which is not typically what he wants to do. He wants to get the ball down the field and get some big plays. ... You let quarterbacks get comfortable and get hot, they start playing pitch-and-catch with their receivers. And they start gaining more and more confidence.”

Jenkins, who has the second-most sacks (17.5) in Illinois Wesleyan history, doesn’t mind being called “Grandpa” even though he isn’t actually the oldest player on the team.

“As soon as they started, I thought ‘Oh no. This is going to be a whole season thing,’ Jenkins said with a laugh. “It doesn’t really bother me. It’s funny.”

Opposing offensive tackles haven’t found anything to smile about. Jenkins takes advantage of film study to keep them off balance with an array of pass-rush moves, including his self-titled “halfspin” — faking a spin inside before rushing to the outside. It’s important to recognize how offensive linemen react after the snap, Jenkins said, because some quickly step back to form a cushion while others aggressively get their hands up to block.

Illinois Wesleyan head coach Norm Eash said he was disappointed Jenkins or senior linebacker Ryan Gresko (team-high 76 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles) didn’t win the conference’s defensive player of the year award. As an undersized defensive end, Jenkins has had success modeling his game after Dwight Freeney of the Indianapolis Colts.

“He’s deceptively strong. He is going to beat you with quickness and then he’s going to come back and bull-rush you,” Eash said. “Offensive tackles have a hard time adjusting to that.”

The Titans face their stiffest challenge yet after allowing only four passing touchdowns during the regular season. Tanney missed most of 2010 after tearing the AC joint in his throwing shoulder, but has guided the Fighting Scots to 556.7 yards per game — best in Division III by almost 50 yards. Along the way, he set an NCAA career record for passing touchdowns (154) and a Division III record for passing yards (13,686).

Although Illinois Wesleyan doesn’t excel at creating sacks or forcing turnovers, it keeps points off the scoreboard with a bend-but-don’t-break defense that supplements a mediocre offense. The Titans average 24.5 points per game behind the steady play of sophomore quarterback Rob Gallik and a rushing attack that will emphasize ball control against Monmouth.

“We just try to play real sound and not allow big plays from the other team,” Gresko said. “Make them drive down the field — which is hard for a lot of teams to do.”

Ben Houk is among the seniors looking to extend their career on the defensive side of the ball at Illinois Wesleyan.
IWU athletics photo

Despite facing potent offenses including North Central and Wheaton, Illinois Wesleyan hasn’t allowed a completion longer than 50 yards or a rush longer than 30 yards. That success against quality opponents makes Eash comfortable the defense can control Monmouth’s attack.

“We’re going to stay true to our schemes,” Eash said. “I think the worst thing you can do is get in the playoffs and think you should reinvent the wheel. I think we can put pressure on [Tanney] just with our rush and our speed and quickness up front.”

Rundle, who spent seven years as a Penn State defensive assistant, carried over principles from one of Division I’s consistently stingy defenses when he arrived at Illinois Wesleyan. The Titans run a 4-3 defense with a Cover 3 shell that allows a safety to creep toward the line of scrimmage.

The Titans made a quick transition, posting two nonconference shutouts and holding each CCIW opponent below its season average in points. Six defensive players were named to the all-CCIW first and second teams — Jenkins, Gresko, senior linebacker Ben Houk, senior safeties Scott Wenzel and P.J. Cummings, and junior defensive end Trey Cunningham — and eight starters have recorded at least 40 tackles.

That balanced output gives the Titans hope Saturday’s game could resemble the first meetings between the teams — in 1898, Illinois Wesleyan tied Monmouth 0-0 before winning 11-0.

“It could be a lower-scoring game than everyone expects,” Eash said. “I don’t want to get into a track meet.”