By Keith McMillan
Are you ready to pair purple powerhouses in the Stagg Bowl, figuring Mount Union and UW-Whitewater will coast this week?
Rowan and Wesley would just as soon have you doubt them.
The East and South bracket champions, located just more than an hour apart in the Delaware Valley, have played up the underdog role for the latter half of the season. The more either seems to achieve, the more doubters they gain.
“When people have written them off, called them the underdogs or haven’t picked them to win, they’ve fed off that,” Rowan coach Jay Accorsi says of his team.
“We’ve been an underdog all season,” Wesley quarterback Chris Warrick said after his team beat Bridgewater (Va.) on Saturday. “We’ve kind of assumed the role of underdog, and that’s fine with us.”
While such talk is easy to write off as typical us-against-the-world rhetoric, each team’s ‘underdog pride,’ if you will, runs parallel to a general opinion about Division III football in the East.
Saturday could go a long way toward changing that.
Each team has chartered its ride to the national semifinals on homegrown talent. Rowan has found that distancing itself from its transfer-heavy past has given its players a chance to grow and know their roles. Wesley has found gems like defensive lineman Bryan Robinson and running back Kevin Nelson without leaving Delaware, but its most important homeboy may be a red-bearded coach one wouldn’t normally associate with that word.
Mike Drass been at Wesley since it, and the quarterfinalist it just beat, were winning just a game or two a year. In 1989, Drass arrived in Dover as an assistant for a school with a proud junior college history. Poorly supported in its 1986 move to four-year competition, the Wolverines lost their first 25 games as a member of Division III.
Drass, who became head coach in 1993 and has had no losing seasons, one .500 season and two 6-4 years, experienced something of a homecoming against Bridgewater on Saturday. After defeating Ferrum in the first round of the playoffs, the Wolverines went on the road to play Mary Hardin-Baylor. The buzz after beating the 2004 runners-up was through the roof, and many of Drass’ former players came back to see the biggest game in Wesley’s Division III history.
As Wesley ran out the clock during its 46-7 win over the Eagles, Drass turned and hugged someone, then took a long look into the crowd.“That was kind of the realization (of what just happened) for me,” Drass said. “I’ve been here since 1989. We’ve had some great wins … but today was one of those special feelings.”
It was one he got to share with some of Wesley’s greats. Drass said Petie Davis, the school’s all-time leading rusher, came to see the game, as did Ernie McCook, a 1992 Wesley graduate who is now offensive coordinator at Division II Shepherd (W.Va.)
The night before, Drass found himself overwhelmed by a campus pep rally.
“It was packed,” he said. “That kind of touched me a little bit, and I’m not a sensitive guy.”
While Wesley is making its first great run through the playoffs, Rowan’s 12 trip to the postseason is now its ninth semifinal appearance.
“I think the school gets very excited (still),” Accorsi said. “People just expect you to always win, and that’s OK.”
Accorsi, in his fourth season as head coach, joined the Rowan staff in 1993 under his predecessor, K.C. Keeler, who led the Profs to five Stagg Bowls in nine seasons. With back-to-back East bracket championships, Accorsi has quashed any doubts about whether Rowan could keep its ultra-successful run going, even though he runs things a bit differently than Keeler.
Accorsi stopped redshirting (Division III as a whole has since done so as well) and began a junior varsity program. But he also scaled back the Profs’ famous focus on transfers.
“Building from within, getting away from the 1-2 year quick fix, I think really helped the team chemistry, and helped players know their roles,” he said.
The JV experience and knowing those roles has helped the Profs keep blazing ahead even as three of its best players have been lost to season-ending injury.
“(They have an) understanding that in football, there’s a lot of injuries, and you have to be ready to play when your time comes,” Accorsi said. He called the team one of the deepest Rowan’s had, and says there’s a great understanding of the team concept and lack of egos.
The experience of losing their starting quarterback and best defensive lineman had Profs playing like each game might be their last long before the playoffs began, when that really is the case. And after turning in a 28-24 win at Union in the snow and a 27-21 victory at Delaware Valley’s sloppy field, the resilient Profs are becoming the team that won’t go away.
Perhaps that’s why they’re unfazed by being sent to face the only Division III program that’s been more successful over the past dozen years. Seven-time champion Mount Union is 3-1 against Rowan, with Stagg Bowl victories in 1993, 1996 and 1998 and a semifinal loss in Alliance in 1999.
“It’s just the next team along the way (for my players),” Accorsi says. “We’ve beaten two undefeated teams. We’ve been sent on the road as an underdog, and I’m sure we’ll be the underdog on the road this week.”
The same goes for Wesley, who will bring players it recruited out of Rowan’s Southern New Jersey backyard with it to UW-Whitewater. Both will carry the banner for football in the East.
“Wesley, even though they’re in the South Region, geographically, I consider them an East team,” Accorsi says.
That could be a curse, since an East team has never won in Salem. (Ithaca, in 1991, was the last Eastern national champion.)
Wesley’s got the underdog role down pat.
“The Division III championship may be starting right now,” Drass said around 3 p.m. last Saturday, when his team had looked positively championship-worthy and No. 2 Whitewater was kicking off at No. 1 Linfield. “Those are two phenomenal teams. We’re just going to ride this thing out and do our best.”
The best just might be a pair of schools 90 minutes apart by highway and worlds apart by measure of Division III history. Wesley and Rowan could find themselves all the way in Southwestern Virginia on Dec. 17.
If it happens, I suppose they’ll have to fight over who gets to be underdog.
Mark my words (or eat ’em)
OK folks, I’ve got a lot of opinions this week, so relax and enjoy the show. Don’t forget to fire back -- directions on how to have your opinions heard are at the end of the column.
It’s great to see the Daily Dose blog alive this week, as I’ve often felt everyone except the fans of the remaining teams sort of go away as we get closer to the Stagg Bowl. Of course, the comments section is about half interesting fan insight, half same asinine trash talk as always. Any message board vet can tell you the names change, but the arguments generally just repeat themselves. “So what we lost, we have a better average SAT score,” “You obviously are too stupid to grasp my post,“ and of course, “You can’t spell write [sic].”
A lot of my inspiration comes from Saturday games, but some comes from your opinions about them as seen in Daily Dose.
After seeing Wesley in person, I’m not sure whether to feel let down by the people who had seen them and helped me gauge them (We swear, we’re not making most of this stuff up out of thin air), or that I saw a team that is rapidly improving even as the competition gets tougher.
That said, I’ve got a strong feeling — and remember, I’ve been high on UW-Whitewater for quite some time — that the Wolverines are going to have a chance to win in Saturday’s fourth quarter.
I’ve been playing poker with friends for five years, and we have a saying when a big bet comes around and the bettor is obviously wishy-washy: “No balls, no black chips.”
Well that’s me picking the Warhawks/Wolverines game. After seeing the talent along Wesley’s defensive line, I think the matchup against Whitewater’s offensive line is the best position battle left in the playoffs. (Linemen everywhere, Merry Christmas. I do accept gifts.)
Elsewhere, Pat Coleman was really impressed by Whitewater’s secondary after seeing the Warhawks for a second time this season. That should make for another great matchup between Wesley’s Marcus Lee-Larry Beavers combination and the Warhawks who patrol the defensive backfield.
I came away really impressed by quarterback Chris Warrick’s decision-making on Saturday, although that was apparently part game plan. Wesley took its shots deep, but mostly threw short passes, screens and never forced anything into coverage. The offensive line was average against the Bridgewater pass rush, but Warrick bought himself time to throw. He’s not a running quarterback per se, but he’s slippery behind the line of scrimmage. And on top of that, the Wesley running backs can scoot.
Whitewater did not have a great game the day I saw them, but quarterback Justin Jacobs is as good as anyone I’ve seen. He was hitting guys in the hands all day.
Perhaps I’m rambling, but that semifinal is actually looking like the more exciting of the two.
Forgive me if I’m a little ho-hum about Mount Union-Rowan. But even though I feel like I’ve seen this one before (1993 anyone?), I know deep down that this is much different.
For starters, both teams are much more vulnerable than their great teams of the ’90s. Mount Union is relying on some skill talent still fairly new to the program, but apparently experience is not necessary for Nate Kmic. And Pierre Garcon has blended in fine after transferring to Mount Union from Norwich.
Each week we’re ready to bury the plug-and-play Profs, because we wonder how many more injuries they can withstand. At this point, however, they’re just getting stronger. Their backups have now proved themselves in the playoffs, but still serve as reminders to other Profs who need to give extraordinary efforts for them to win.
OK, let’s look at last week.
Eat ’em: No guts in picking Linfield 27, Whitewater 25. It was the smart pick, perhaps, and will bear out our No. 1 vs. No. 2 ranking if Whitewater wins it all. But I missed wide left (coast) on this one.
Eat ’em: For once, I decided to stop thinking other good Division III teams can play with Mount Union, and went with 45-20. Um, Capital nearly won, falling 34-31. Technically, I picked the right winner, but it feels like a loser.
Eat ’em: Bridgewater 30, Wesley 28? Um, I nearly hit the total points, but the 46-7 Wolverines win was as bad as the score made it look. I doubt the Eagles would get blown out like that again in 10 games against Wesley, but the Wolverines are looking rather unstoppable.
Eat ’em: I played the emotion card and thought perhaps last year’s rout stoked a season-long fire that would burn in Saturday’s fourth quarter and provide a 22-21 win. Instead, the Aggies were outscored 27-7 after taking a 14-0 lead.
I went 1-3 last week, bringing me to 19-9 overall in these playoffs, including 0-3 in games involving Bridgewater.
This week’s ATN picks:
Rowan at Mount Union, Alliance, Ohio, noon EST: Outlook: Especially if the weather is ugly, this game could become a grind that suits both teams better than their reputations suggest. Rowan is using three running backs to replace Ulysses Encarnacion, while Mount Union freshman Nate Kmic is emerging during the playoffs, even though Aaron Robinson is still on hand. Pierre Garcon and Scott Casto are stud wideouts for the Purple Raiders, while Sakeen Wright and Phil Silva lead the Profs’ spread. Rowan has forced 14 turnovers in three playoff games while holding its opponents to 20% on third down conversions. Linebacker Mike Gibbons leads the Purple Raiders, while Todd Trout is the heart of the Profs D. “They’re a lot like us,” says Rowan’s Accorsi. “They run the football, they don’t make a lot of mistakes … on defense, they don’t give up big plays. They keep everything in front of them.”
Pick: This just does not look like an offensive showcase to me. Looks like grit will eventually overtake precision, and lead to a furious late third/early fourth quarter. At the end, the Purple Raider defense protects a lead and prevents a third rally in a row. Mount Union 23, Rowan 20
Wesley at UW-Whitewater, Whitewater, Wis., 1 p.m. EST: Outlook: Wesley has a gamer at quarterback with a pair of explosive receivers to throw to, not to mention a running back that can scoot. Whitewater’s got a star at quarterback, running back and receiver. I think the key is whether the Warhawks’ offensive line can handle the Wesley defensive line. Both teams are physical, and as Pat Cummings pointed out last week, the Wolverines don’t have an obvious flaw to exploit. Both teams have knocked off a Stagg Bowl participant from last season, and will come in confident. Whitewater should bring a solid crowd to Division III’s largest stadium, but they may not notice the game being won in the trenches.
Pick: I think this game will start off slowly, as the teams cautiously feel each other out. Then we’ll get a scoring explosion in the middle quarters, as each coaching staff figures out how to best utilize its playmakers. Then in the fourth quarter, the team with the most left along the lines will grind out the game-winning drive and halt a potential one. UW-Whitewater 31, Wesley 28
Parity is definitely present. We were a couple lost fourth-quarter leads away from a final four of Capital, Delaware Valley, Wesley and UW-Whitewater, not exactly the juggernaut of historically great Division III programs.
• Unless UW-Whitewater’s Justin Beaver accepts the Gagliardi Trophy in Salem, its winner would much prefer to be there because of his team, not alone. The other nine candidates, including favorite Brett Elliott, are done playing for the season.
It may leak out shortly after this column hits the Web, but I still wonder if giving the trophy to a Division I-A transfer keeps with the D-III spirit. For the record, I don’t vote, even though I’ve seen more Division III games in the past week than probably nine-tenths of the voting committee. Boy, no way that sentence comes off not sounding bitter, huh?
• No need to update Streak Watch this week, but after Linfield’s streak of 23 wins in a row was broken last Saturday, it proved what a hindrance the playoffs are to runs of consecutive victories.
Of the eight teams with double-digit win streaks two weeks ago, only UW-Whitewater and Trinity (Conn.) remain undefeated. And certainly the Bantams would have been defeated at some point if they were postseason-eligible.
• I’ve seen it suggested that the Stagg Bowl should be in the Midwest, or on the campus of the higher seed.
Wow. What could be more lame than playing the national championship on campus?
Salem, Va. has been a gracious host for a dozen years now, and is in within driving distance of a large percentage of football-playing Division III institutions, even if some teams don’t travel well anyway.
It’s not exactly an East Coast location, since it’s nowhere near a coastline. The Roanoke Valley is roughly due south of Cleveland.
And I’m not sure there is an attendance problem that moving the Stagg Bowl could solve. Division III football is what it is. We won’t ever be drawing huge numbers, but we do have a passionate fan base and a city that likes having us, which seems like a match.
Before Salem, Division III tried taking the championship to warm-weather locales in Florida and Alabama, but there was no Division III base nearby. The Stagg Bowls at Kings Island, Ohio, did not draw well either.
Surely, attendance at these games is a non-concern of the powers that be, just as balanced brackets are. The necessary things are that there is a playoff, a championship and open access to it.
Feedback/Year in review
Even considering the overwhelming response from last week, Around the Nation is still accepting your suggestions for its annual year-in-review column, due out in January. Please choose only a few categories from the ones we used last year and be creative, but brief and language-appropriate. If we agree with your nomination, we’ll shout you out by your real name or message board moniker, plus age, hometown and/or team you root for. Be sure to put “Year in Review” somewhere in the subject line so your e-mail does not get lost among the glut received at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please take a look at the end of last week’s column for the categories open to nominations.
As always, your feedback on other issues is encouraged via e-mail, our feedback form or the Around the Nation thread on Post Patterns.