Denison breaking through

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Denison is happy to be on top in the North Coast Athletic Conference, although DePauw and Wabash will be gunning for the Big Red the next two weeks.
Denison athletics photo 

When looking at the NCAC standings, it might seem strange to see a team other than Wabash or Wittenberg at the top.

Annually, those two programs rule the conference. This year, Denison is in first.

While that may be surprising to some, it’s not to the Big Red. The squad is off to its best start in more than three decades and it has won 17 of its last 21 games dating back to 2014.

“There have been big wins, but no big wins like over Wabash or Wittenberg,” Denison coach Jake Hatem said. “It’s been a constant process to the point where we finally got one of those games.”

Two weeks ago, the Big Red let everyone know it was ready for a breakthrough with a 24-21 win over Wittenberg. While Denison is currently at the top of the NCAC mountain, it faces a formidable challenge of remaining there as it closes the regular season at DePauw, home against Wabash and at Kenyon.

“Every game is tough one for us. But, we have a really tough stretch coming up,” Hatem said. “We’re really excited about (the start). Honestly, we’re still awfully young. On offense, we’re really only playing two seniors. It’ll be key to see how we handle the success. It’s been a lot of fun, though.”

Sophomore dual-threat quarterback Canaan Gebele has sparked the Big Red’s offense this year. Even though he missed Saturday’s 42-28 win over Allegheny with an injury sustained in the win over Wittenberg – the program’s first over the Tigers since 1989 – he is second in the NCAC with 604 yards rushing and fifth with 1,592 passing yards. Gebele saw time in all of the team’s games last season, but took over the starting duties this year.

“There’s no doubt he is more comfortable. It’s still a jump from high school to college football. It’s a whole new step mentally and he is doing a great job. He is a super smart kid,” Hatem said. “He is just in a little different place now as a sophomore. He is a great athlete and is very mature. He has worked tirelessly with our offensive coordinator.”

While Denison lacks a “superstar” like receiver DuShawn Brown, who graduated as the NCAC’s second-leading receiver, the Big Red has been effective through the air and on the ground. The team ranks second in NCAC total offense and defense.

“Last year, we could have been the Denison DuShawn Browns. This year’s team is way more balanced,” Hatem said. “Our whole secondary is back. Offensively, we’re just way more balanced, too. When you lose a kid like DuShawn, that’s hard. Now, in some ways, it’s made our offense more effective because we’re more balanced now that we’re not always trying to find ways to get DuShawn the ball. It could have gone the wrong way, too, but everyone has stepped up.

“We still have a lot of big games left,” he continued. “We have to go about our business and continue to get better every week.”

Game of the Week

Westminster 16, Washington & Jefferson 10: The Titans posted their first win over the Presidents in 16 years. Westminster clung to a 13-10 lead after three quarters. The hosts added a field goal in the fourth and held on for the victory in PAC action.

What to Watch

Denison at DePauw: The Big Red visits the Tigers to begin a challenging final portion of its season. Denison hopes to remain atop the NCAC standings, while DePauw looks to bounce back after its 37-15 upset home loss to Ohio Wesleyan, which scored the final 23 points.

200 for Lackner

Carnegie Mellon head coach Rich Lackner became the 79th football coach in NCAA history to amass 200 wins with the Tartans’ 49-33 decision over Thiel. Lackner is one of 13 active head coaches among all divisions with 200 career victories. He is the 34th coach to win all 200 games at the same institution and just the 11th to do so at the Division III level. He is tied for third place among active D-III head coaches in total career wins.

In the polls

No. 1 Mount Union (7-0) cruised past Wilmington, 71-1. The Raiders visit Otterbein on Saturday.

No. 13 Thomas More (7-1) posted a 45-14 win at St. Vincent. The Saints return home Saturday to take on Bethany.

No. 20 Wabash (6-1) settled for a 34-24 win over Wooster. The Little Giants visit Ohio Wesleyan on Saturday.

No. 21 John Carroll (6-1) moved up two spots after it blanked Capital, 56-0. The Blue Streaks travel to Muskingum on Saturday.

No. 22 Denison (7-0) jumped two places after its 42-28 win over Allegheny. The Big Red voyages to DePauw on Saturday.

No. 23 Wittenberg (6-1) reappeared in the Top 25 after its 40-0 triumph against Hiram. The Tigers travel to Oberlin on Saturday.

No. 25 Case Western Reserve (7-0) survived a major scare with a 16-14 win over Geneva. The Spartans trek to Washington University on Saturday. 

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Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

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