|Eric Stevenson's interception at the 3-yard-line was one of several big plays by the Thunder defense this postseason.
Photo by David Malamut, d3photography.com
By Brian Lester
Looking at the box score on the surface, you can say Wheaton started slow against North Central Saturday afternoon in its second-round playoff game.
But veteran Thunder head coach Mike Swider doesn't think slow start is the right term in what eventually turned out to be a 31-14 win over the Cardinals. Wheaton and North Central were scoreless after one quarter, tied at 7-7 at halftime and tied at 14-14 heading into the fourth.
"I wouldn't say we started slow. It was two good teams playing against each other," Swider said. "We just took our play to another level in the fourth quarter to beat a quality opponent. They are well-coached and play hard but we were able to dominate at the line of scrimmage."
Senior linebacker Caleb Ashby, a captain on the team, said getting pressure on Cardinals quarterback Broc Rutter made the difference for the defense, which recorded six sacks.
|Caleb Ashby and the Thunder defense put the clamps on the Cardinals, especially in a dominant fourth quarter.
Photo by David Malamut, d3photography.com
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"I just thought we brought more pressure on their quarterback. We know it's something he doesn't handle as well. We didn't want to give him time to throw or he'd hurt us."
Wheaton is now headed to the quarterfinal round of the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2008 and the challenge in front of it is top-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor, the favorite to win the title.
The Thunder, in the midst of their third consecutive season of 11 or more wins, are ready for the challenge.
"It feels great to be moving on. We've stalled out in the second round the past couple of years," Ashby said. "We're excited about going to Texas to play. We know we have to play our best football. We can't slack off at all."
Playing at its best is what the Thunder have done as of late, especially on defense. During their five-game win streak, the Thunder have not allowed more than 14 points in a game. Wheaton has given up 20 or more points only twice this season.
"We've played well defensively all year," Swider said. "Our defensive line is strong and we are great against the run. I've never heard anyone say a defense is great if it hasn't been able to stop the run. We have to do that Saturday and keep the ball in front of us defending the pass."
Wheaton has been successful offensively as well, scoring 30 or more eight times. Part of that success is linked to the fact that the Thunder have two quarterbacks capable of being a starter.
Andrew Bowers started Saturday's playoff game against the Cardinals and threw for two touchdowns. He has thrown for 26 in all this year and has racked up nearly 2,500 yards through the air.
Johnny Peltz has played in 10 games and has thrown for just over 400 yards and five scores.
"We have two really good quarterbacks. It's a really good problem to have," Swider said. "They are both competitive and having both of them is a luxury that makes us a better football team."
As solid as the Thunder appear to be on both sides of the ball, it remains to be seen if that will be enough to slow down a Crusaders team that averages 53.3 points per outing and allows only 14.5.
"We do a lot of good things on both sides of the ball because we have great players," said Swider. "Are we going to be good enough to beat a team like Mary Hardin-Baylor? I don't know. But that's why you play the games. We'll give it our best shot."
Swider said playing on the road doesn't make the game any more challenging, at least on the field. Nor does it matter as much that the Thunder are up against the No. 1 team in the country.
"When you get this far, you expect greatness. Everyone is good," Swider said. "Getting the travel plans ready and everything makes things busier but once you get settled in and are on the field for warmups, it's just a game."
Ashby said staying focused is the most important thing and doesn't think there is too much of a difference in keeping that focus, be it home or away.
"I don't really think there is that much of a difference in mindset," Ashby said. "We're going in there focused on playing well. We feel like we have played well on the road this year and are focused and we're ready to go down there and play our best."
Ashby said he chose Wheaton because of its history of success and is thrilled he has the opportunity to still be playing football. He is hoping to make the most of the opportunity in front of him this week.
"When I was looking for a school to play at I wanted to play somewhere where they won a lot," Ashby said. "To be able to go to the playoffs these last few years and to still be playing has been fun. I've made some great memories. We're hoping to make some more."
Swider said he has never promised recruits championships but he has promised them the opportunity to play in meaningful games late in the year. He's made good on that promise and maybe with a little luck and some breaks, a championship will be part of the equation this season.
"I always tell the kids that if you come here you'll get a chance to play meaningful games in November," Swider said. "We've done that and now we're getting set to play one in December. It's a blessing to be able to have the success that we've had here and a great feeling to be one of the teams still playing football this late in the year."