By Clyde Hughes
Cincinnati’s Mount St. Joseph had its most successful football season in history last year, going a perfect 10-0, winning the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference and making it to the NCAA playoffs.
The Lions' talented wide receiver, Andy Wellendorf, was named the offensive most valuable player of the conference. It would stand to reason with all of this success in an offense that averaged nearly 28 points a game, the last thing you would want to do is change the guy who was throwing Wellendorf the ball.
So much for conventional wisdom.
Coach Rod Huber has done just that, benching the guy who won 10 straight regular season games for him last year, senior Bryan Hamrock, and replaced him with the shifty sophomore Rashon Lewis.
“He’s a Division I transfer from Arkansas-Pine Bluff who was unhappy where he was,” Huber said. “He came up here and had a real good visit. He was here in the spring and stayed all summer and worked hard.”
Huber admits it was a gutsy move to take the ball out of the hands of an undefeated quarterback to go with an unknown talent, but his No. 1 goal was to put the best athletes on the field. He said after spring and preseason workouts and two scrimmages, the staff believed that Lewis had beaten out Hamrock for the starting job.
“If I was coaching based on sentiments or loyalty, (Hamrock) would be starting,” Huber said. “But I can’t coach that way. It’s very important for me to put the best athletes on the field and I don’t care what high school you went to or what happened last year.”
But who can argue with a coach who has won 12 regular season games in a row. Huber said Lewis’ ability to run and pass gives the Lions an additional threat on offense to complement Wellendorf and running back Mike Lovell, who averaged more than 100 yards a game last year.
In two games, Lewis has completed 30 of 47 passes (63.8%) for 392 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. One of those interceptions was run back for a touchdown in his first game against Wilmington as the Lions fell behind early.
Lewis was able to rally Mount St. Joseph, throwing two fourth quarter touchdown passes to Wellendorf as the Lions escaped with a 21-18 victory. Last week was easier for Lewis, going 15-for-24 for 249 yards in a 49-7 win against Rose-Hulman.
Last year, Hamrock completed 56.9% of his passes (144 of 253) with 19 touchdowns and six interceptions for 1,818 yards. Fifty-eight of those passes went to Wellendorf on his way to earning MVP honors.
“I know this is a tough pill to swallow being a senior,” Huber said. “He has handled it very well. This is a competition, though. One guy knows if he doesn’t get the job done, the other one will be going in there.”
Huber said Hambrock is ahead of Lewis in knowing the offense, but said Lewis will only get better once he understands the reads and check offs he needs to make.
“He is an athlete with a capital A,” Huber said of Lewis. “He could play tailback, he could play slot and he could play cornerback. That’s how good of an athlete he is. He can play just about everywhere.”
Huber said he doesn’t worry about critics who would come out of the woodwork if Mount St. Joseph’s drops a regular-season contest and point a finger at the quarterback position.
“I have a real thick skin,” he said. “I have 105 players and 10 coaches and I have to do what’s best for those players and coaches.”
Time will certainly tell if Huber’s call at quarterback will be the one that will continue Mount St. Joseph’s success, but it’s so far so good for the Lions.
Airplane, ground game
Augustana had enough trouble finding non-conference games that the Vikings were willing to fly to Washington, D.C., to play Catholic, with no guarantee of a return game. But while the trip was about more than football, coach Jim Barnes' focus was clear: "We needed to win the game."
That they did, rolling out to a 49-7 lead before Catholic's starters scored three touchdowns on Augustana's reserves for the 52-26 final.
The team slept on the bus and plane Thursday night, leaving its Rock Island, Ill., campus at 1 a.m. for the four-hour drive to Chicago, then flying to the nation's capital. Friday's itinerary included "a lot of sightseeing," according to senior quarterback Matt Roe, as well as dinner at D.C.'s Augustana Lutheran Church.
"We got a good night's sleep last night," said Roe after the game.
"We packed the itinerary pretty tight," said Barnes. "Now I think we can get everything else done. We have a free day (Sunday)."
Coming off a week in which he was limited to 7 yards on 10 carries in an overtime loss to Augustana, Roe roamed freely on Catholic, running for 154 yards on 14 carries in the Vikings' Wing-T offense. Roe scored touchdowns of 70 and 42 yards within a six-minute span of the first half.
"They were pinching inside all day and left the outside open," said Roe, who ended up throwing just two passes all day, completing them both for a total of 48 yards. "I'd like it to be about 8-10 (passes) a game – we've got some playmakers on the outside and need to get them the ball. But if the run game is working, we have to go with it."
Games to watch
Monmouth (2-0) at St. Norbert (1-1), De Pere, Wis., 1:30 p.m. CDT: St. Norbert, the reigning dynasty in the Midwest Conference, takes on Monmouth at home on Saturday. St. Norbert dominates the MWC as few teams have with 19 straight conference wins and victories in 44 of its past 46 MWC contests.
But are the Green Knights vulnerable this year?
St. Norbert was hammered by nationally ranked UW-Whitewater in the season opener and held on to beat Beloit 27-25 in the conference opener. Monmouth, on the other hand has scored victories over Concordia (Wis.) 40-26 and Ripon 48-34.
Before anyone gets too excited, Monmouth lost one game last year – to St. Norbert – and it wasn’t even close, 55-19 at Monmouth. St. Norbert and Monmouth were picked to finish one-two in the Midwest Conference this year.
A couple of other things are going against Monmouth as well. The Fighting Scots have never beaten St. Norbert at Minahan Stadium (0-9 all-time since 1975). The Green Knights have beaten Monmouth eight straight times since 1996.
UW-Whitewater (2-0) at Lakeland (1-1), Sheboygan, Wis., 1:00 CDT: Upset-minded Lakeland led No. 18-ranked Carthage on the road 13-0 early in the third quarter before bowing 20-16 last Saturday. It doesn’t get any easier for Lakeland as they take on No. 15 UW-Whitewater, which has made their first two games against St. Norbert and St. Xavier look pretty easy. It will be interesting to see if Lakeland’s effort against Carthage wasn’t a fluke.
Earlham (1-1) at Anderson (1-1), Anderson, Ind.; 1:30 EST: You might want to take a calculus class at one of these schools before trying to keep score in this one. Pass-happy Anderson ripped rival Taylor 52-14 last week while Earlham beat Manchester 69-62 in a regulation football game and setting NCAA scoring records in the process. The defense may take a holiday in this one.
Finally, I would like to thank the good folks at D3football.com for giving me this opportunity to delve into the exciting world of Division III college football. This is my first year doing this column, but I have written sports in part of 22 years.
Football is the ultimate team sport. One basketball player can dominate a game and one pitcher can dictate the pace of a baseball game. But a running back is only as good as the five big guys in front of him and wide receivers can make a quarterback look very good or bad and visa versa.
Contributing: Pat Coleman