|Travis Rundle and the Tigers celebrated the program's first win since the 2015 opener.
Photo by Buck Butler
The beauty is in the struggle.
There were so many intriguing non-conference matchups on the Week 1 schedule. It was tough to decide which one to see in person.
I could have made the four-hour drive up to Cleveland to see No. 4 UW-Oshkosh open at No. 8 John Carroll. Franklin was playing at No. 19 Thomas More right in my backyard. I even considered making the trek to my alma mater to see the Generals host No. 13 Johns Hopkins on Friday night.
Those all turned out to be great games with exciting finishes. But those games also featured teams who expect to win each week. Teams that are used to success and will almost certainly find more of it in October, November, and possibly December.
The game I was drawn to in Week 1 was at the other end of the spectrum. Two teams starving for victory. A rivalry renewed when the programs needed it most. There’s something so pure, so sincere, so D-III about watching players come together and win together for the first time.
Earlham had not won a game since 2013. Wilmington had not won since the 2015 season opener. Only 19 players on the teams’ combined rosters had ever won a college football game at their current school, and all were on the Wilmington sideline.
Since 2010, the two programs had combined for five wins and ten winless seasons. The renewal of the Quaker Bowl, last played in 1997, was probably not on your Week 1 radar.
But seeing the emotion on the faces of the players and coaches who finally broke through for a long-awaited victory reminded me of why we all love and follow Division III football. Every player on the field on Saturday embodied the D-III ethos of playing for the love of the game, taking it to the extreme.
It would have been so easy for these players to give up after another winless season. Instead, they re-dedicated themselves in the weight room, in spring ball, and in training camp. Wilmington welcomed a new coaching staff led by Bryan Moore. He and his staff brought a new energy to the offseason and it carried over onto the field on Saturday, leading to a 49-20 win over Earlham.
|The Quakers had to learn the program's fight song before they could sing it.
Wilmington Athletics photo
“Unbelievable. Just about as good as i thought it was going to feel,” said Moore after the victory. “It was nervewracking coming in, a ball of knots in my stomach. I think once we got out and played and scored that first TD and settled in, it was really special to watch."
When the players on the roster have only experienced one victory while on campus, and the previous coaching staff did not believe in postgame singing, rehearsal is needed. Sports Information Director Ameer Rasheed, a former Quakers player, had to teach the team the fight song during the week. Moore was nervous that it would bring bad karma, but seeing the players raise their helmets and belt it out in front of a sizable home crowd was worth it.
"It’s special. I played at a program that didn’t win a lot of games and that’s kinda been my inspiration for coaching, to take some bad teams and get them better so they have that experience," said Moore. "These juniors and seniors have missed that opportunity to experience the greatness of college football. To have that moment, especially for the seniors, that’s special, that’s what it’s all about."
Sewanee was in the same position. The Tigers had not won since the 2015 season opener and also hired a new head coach in the offseason. They experienced the same euphoria on Saturday.
"We hadn’t talked about anything that happened previously. We just stressed going 1-0 each day and each week," said first-year head coach Travis Rundle. "I could tell they were hungry to do what it took to win. It’s been amazing to watch the process go from spring practice to today."
Much like at Wilmington, it was the upperclassmen who stuck it out during the lean years who had the most joy on their faces when the final seconds ticked off the clock in a 45-20 home win over Kenyon. The program invited back all of its former captains to participate in the weekend, and they took time to speak to the current players at a breakfast on Saturday morning. The alumni and fans made the victory even sweeter.
"I couldn’t be happier for those guys, the juniors and seniors, seeing the looks on their faces," said Rundle. "It was so much fun to watch those guys run out on the field and celebrate with each other. To see the perseverance to stick it out, it’s not easy. I have a lot of respect for those guys."
Other new head coaches making impressive debuts included Tony Joe White at Birmingham-Southern, Jim Hilvert at Baldwin-Wallace, Grant Mollring at Buena Vista (IA), Art Link at Christopher Newport, Tyler Hopperton at Mount St. Joseph, James Kilian at St. Olaf (shout out Rose Nylund), and Justin Charles at Louisiana College.
Allegheny appears to be turning the corner in B.J. Hammer's second season. The program won just two games from 2013-2016, but posted a convincing 38-6 win over Thiel. The next step is to win multiple games for first time since 2012.
The Bobcats entered this season with high expectations and a marquee matchup against reigning MAC champion Stevenson.
The Mustangs put together two long drives in the first quarter. The game was tied 7-7 heading into the second quarter. From there, the Bobcats defense dominated en route to a 33-7 victory.
“As a defensive line, we told ourselves we needed to take the game over and step up,” said senior Niles Scott. “We just lined up in our normal four-man front and said ‘We’re going to play harder than you today.’”
Stevenson’s first three drives, all in the first quarter, totaled 15 plays, 132 yards, and seven points. Over the final three quarters, they ran 31 plays and lost 47 yards.
On Stevenson’s first snap of the second quarter, Scott and Pacom Tsague combined for a sack. That set the tone for the rest of the game. It was a statement win for FSU and the strength of the NJAC.
“We had a really great game plan coming into the week,” said senior Jordan Procter. “I don’t think they’d seen a defense as fast and as physical. We set the baseline and we’re going to build upon that each and every week.”
Questions and Answers
Which conference impressed in Week 1?
The conference I predicted to disappoint in Quick Hits on Thursday. The Presidents' Athletic Conference had a strong Week 1 showing. Thomas More avenged last year's season-opening loss to Franklin. Washington and Jefferson defeated No. 23 St. John Fisher. Westminster played within six points of No. 16 Wittenberg. Carnegie Mellon and Case Western Reserve each took care of business. This crow tastes delicious, just needs some more seasoning.
Who broke records?
Hobart’s Jayson Prince set a school record with a 98-yard fumble return, but it was not enough as the Statesmen were upset by Brockport, 34-20.
FDU-Florham’s Jagger Green passed for 593 yards and five touchdowns. Malik Pressley, who transferred back after transferring to Mount Union, hauled in 16 receptions for 271 of Green’s passing yards.
Bryce Marquardt set the career touchdown record for Bethel, as two of his six receptions went for touchdowns. He finished with 144 receiving yards in a crushing double-overtime loss to Dubuque.
What left us scratching our heads?
The hot topics getting national attention are St. John's 98-0 victory over St. Scholastica and third-ranked UW-Whitewater being upset by Illinois Wesleyan. On the surface, both results are surprising. But it's not the number of points that the Johnnies put up, or the fact that the Warhawks lost that shocked me. I think the bigger issue here is that St. Scholastica is a good football program. The Saints have made the playoffs five of the past six years. That's why one prominent head coach complained to me recently about the "socialist" playoff system. This result again shows that St. Scholastica is probably not one of the top 32 teams in the country, even when it earns a Pool A bid. That's what is going to bother those in the D-III football community more than the staggering point total of one game.
As for the Warhawks, I ranked them No. 13 in my preseason poll, and predicted they would finish the season 8-2 but still squeak into the playoffs. Yes, I'm surprised that Illinois Wesleyan handed UW-Whitewater its first loss, but I'm not shocked that the Warhawks looked flat. The beauty of playing in the WIAC, the nation's toughest conference, is that the Warhawks still have all of their goals well within reach. Especially if Saturday serves as a wake-up call.
Here's what to watch for on D3football.com this week.
Later today-- new Top 25 poll released
Monday--Around the Nation podcast with Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan. Also, Play of the Week. Submit nominations today if you haven't already.
Tuesday/Wednesday--Around the Region columns
Thursday--Around the Nation column.
Saturday--You know what Saturdays are for.
We've got great content coming at you all week, every week. Follow along and get to know D-III football beyond just your favorite team.
If you have ideas for an upcoming column or just want to talk some D-III football, get at me at @adamturer on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.