Between these four and the playoffs, an archrival stands

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At top is a familiar sight, as Wabash has won the Monon Bell six years running, but DePauw is in the playoff hunt this year.

There’s more than pride on the line during some rivalry games this weekend.

Whether fighting for a cup, a jug, a bell or another trophy entirely, several teams across the nation need to beat their rival in order to earn an automatic bid into the playoffs.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Monon Bell Classic, which will pit one-loss DePauw and undefeated Wabash against each other for the 122nd time. As if the intensity on the campuses isn’t already enough for this annual matchup, the winner will be guaranteed to extend the season at least one more week.

“Our first goal every year is to win the Bell game. Our second goal is to win our conference. Then our third goal is to go undefeated,” said Wabash coach Erik Raeburn. “This is the first time in a few years that all three of those things are on the line heading into this game.”

The roughly 300-pound train bell is just a piece of the bigger picture between the team that “always fights” and the one that “never quits.” On both campuses in Indiana, the game is by far draws the largest attendance -- last year about 8,000 people were there. It is also broadcast on national television.

Over the years, trickery has been employed to steal the Monon Bell trophy from the other school. A song has been written about the game. And the overall series record is 59-53-9, with Wabash riding a six-game win streak.

“It’s kind of hard for it to be any bigger,” Raeburn said. “It’s an incredible rivalry, and although there’s even more on the line this year than in years past, it’s still difficult to say that a playoff berth and an outright conference championship somehow make it a bigger game.”

When the stakes of a postseason spot run in conjunction with a bitter rivalry matchup, the challenge for both players and coaches is to find a way to drown out the distractions.

“We have not spent a lot of time talking about it because I know the players are going to hear about it from everywhere else. The collective noise is out there, and that’s part of a big rivalry game like this and a championship game,” said Bill Lynch, who is in his fourth season as DePauw’s head coach. “For the sake of the guys playing, as coaches we have to stay focused on our job, making sure we have a great week of preparation and giving us the best chance to win.”

Likewise, the coaching staff at Cortland State is trying to keep its players internally focused ahead of the showdown against Ithaca for the Cortaca Jug.

“You try to reduce it to the simplest terms, because all of the other things create a drama that you really don’t control. The only thing you really control is your preparation and your mindset and platforming yourself for your best performance,” said Red Dragons coach Dan MacNeill. “We’re trying to give our kids everything they need to compete on a stage that is big for us.”

Cortland sits at 7-2 in the brutally competitive Empire 8 and is tied with two other two-loss teams at the top of heap. However, Cortland has beaten both of those two teams and thus needs only a win on Saturday to ensure itself a playoff spot.

MacNeill has led the team for nearly two decades and has seen how playoff hopes and momentum can be altered in a game like this. He’s making sure, too, that his players understand the big picture.

Cortland is no stranger to what happens when a playoff hopeful comes into the Cortaca Jug game, as the Red Dragons took Ithaca down a peg in 2014 and 2013 before the Bombers entered the postseason.

“There’s no question that the fun aspects around the game are the fact that it does relate to a conference title game for us and obviously then to punch your ticket to continue this glorious season into the postseason. Our kids are very well aware of that,” he said. “But none of that matters unless you win the first snap, the second snap, the first quarter, the second quarter, the third quarter and the fourth quarter. Now tie that into the atmosphere that surrounds this game traditionally as Cortaca, and there’s just a whole lot of incentives and whole lot of emotions in there.”

As Cortland State tries to complete the coup for the top spot of its newly joined conference, Salisbury is looking to flex its muscles during its first year in the NJAC. (In fact, both teams left their old homes to go to the other’s conference.) For Sherman Wood and his Sea Gulls, the path to get to this point was bumpy at times and took two somewhat surprising recent twists that had very different outcomes for the team. The first was the Halloween loss to Christopher Newport, which was followed a week later by an upset win against then-No. 4 Wesley.

Salisbury escaped its rival, Wesley, last week. But Salisbury's archrival is the other D-III state school in Maryland: Frostburg State.
Salisbury athletics photo by Paul Jacko 

“We had come off of a tough loss against CNU, and this was the message I sent to the team: Two more games as opposed to just the next game,” said Wood, who is in his 17th season at Salisbury. “The message was even though we lost a disappointing game against CNU, if we win the next two games, we’re in the playoffs, we’re conference champions. The message all week long at that point wasn’t just about Wesley, it was about Wesley and Frostburg.”

It marked the second time Salisbury had to learn how to rebound from a loss and battle onward. In Week 1, an 18-yard field goal went wide left as the Gulls failed to capitalize on a chance to hold off a late-game Albright rally. After that game, Salisbury won five straight. After CNU, Salisbury knocked off Wesley for the first time in more than a decade.

Knowing that, it’s hard to think the team won’t be ready to take the field against Frostburg State on Saturday and defend its stake in the Regents Cup.

“It doesn’t take a lot of motivating: No. 1, you win this next game, you win it over your state rival; No. 2, you’re conference champions; and No. 3, you win this next game, you’re automatically in the playoffs,” Wood said. “This is the Regents Cup. It’s a pride thing. You hoist that cup up, and it means a lot.”

DePauw also found itself looking to right its ship, after an Oct. 24 loss against Ohio Wesleyan. The Tigers have built themselves up from a 2-8 team in the season before Lynch came on board into a current 8-1 squad with realistic playoff hopes.

Lynch said he told his team that in this final stretch of the season, after the OWU loss, that Denison was the start “of a three-team run to the playoffs.”

Denison was 6-1 at the time, and we both had Wabash in front of us,” he said. “So we knew to get to this game, we had to beat them. And then we had to beat Oberlin so that we were in a position to play for the championship.”

The key for his players to stay focused, he said, was to keep things much as they have been every week of the season. Game day is the same. The start time is the same. The length of practices is the same.

“You try to keep the routine the same as every other week. I think if all of sudden you start doing things that are completely different, then you might distract your guys in your own subtle way,” he said. “Football is a very routine-driven sport.”

Wabash’s Raeburn is quick to point out that DePauw is the best team the Little Giants have faced all season. The Tigers have a good offense, and, according to Raeburn, a stellar offensive line. It makes for a particularly stiff test for Raeburn’s defensive line, one of the lynchpins of the team.

“Our players have always understood the importance of this game. You can’t be on campus without hearing about it,” Raeburn said. “Our guys understand the meaning of it, and they understand, this year, all that’s riding on it.”

Keeping your eyes peeled

On Sept. 20, I wrote in my Sunday Snap Judgments column about three teams that are worth keeping an eye on this year. I followed that up a week later by adding a fourth team to my 2015 radar.

The initial group was Albion, Cal Lutheran and St. Lawrence, while the late-comer to the list was Albright. Because there won’t be a Snap Judgments column this coming weekend as the speculation of the postseason becomes reality with the bracket announcement on Selection Sunday, I wanted to take the opportunity to revisit how these four teams have performed this season.

  • Albion: At 8-1 and having clinched a share of the MIAA title, the Britons are in the midst of one of their best seasons in a generation. The playoffs are no guarantee yet, however, as there is currently a three-way tie atop the conference. There are a couple of scenarios that would favor Albion’s chances to make the postseason, but the bottom line is that a win next week against the NACC’s Aurora is crucial. Albion’s success has been fueled by its offense, led by dual-threat quarterback Dominic Bona and rushers Mike Czarnecki and Colin Parks, who have combined for more than 2,000 yards on the ground this season. These players, as well as four of the top five receivers, are seniors. This is prime time for the Britons to take their shot at something big.
  • Albright: The Lions caught my attention early with a 24-23 opening-week win against Salisbury. Since then, the team has done well, despite dropping a close game to Delaware Valley and thus leaving the MAC race and automatic-qualifier spot up in the air going into the last week of play. The Lions have yet to face Lebanon Valley, and a loss coupled with a DelVal win would knock Albright out of the playoff picture. However, if Albright wins next week, they’re guaranteed a spot as the MAC’s lone one-loss team. This Lions team has shown itself to be very solid this season.
  • Cal Lutheran: The season started strong with the Kingsmen winning four of their first five games, including the first two against NWC teams. I latched onto Cal Lutheran in this column as well as in Kickoff 2015 largely because the SCIAC race seemed so wide open this season, and any team that could pull their season together had a chance for the playoff bid (turns out La Verne, which hasn’t had a season above .500 since 2005, stepped in brilliantly). Cal Lutheran is in the midst of a three-game skid, with La Verne on tap this Saturday. The Kingsmen should return a lot of players defensively next season, but their rushing and receiving ranks will be plundered by graduation, making 2016 as much of a wildcard for CLU as 2015 was.
  • St. Lawrence: The 2015 hiccups of perennial Liberty League frontrunner Hobart have helped St. Lawrence position itself well this season, but the thing about frontrunners is that they rarely go away entirely. So after a loss to Hobart last week, SLU at 7-2 is still hunting for a playoff spot. The team needs a win on Saturday to get itself into the dance, and a loss will mean lots of other things have to fall their way to make it happen. Mike Lefflbine has passed for nearly 2,000 yards this season, and there is plenty of big-play potential on this team, both on defense and offense. The Saints are looking good, and no matter how next week turns out, the team has continued to emerge out of the depths of 2012 and the winless season it had then. There is a lot from this program to continue to be excited about.

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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