Lakeland is ready to turn the corner

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Kezlow Smith has become the focal point of the Muskies' new spread offense.
Photo courtesy Lakeland Sports Information 

First-year Lakeland College head coach Colin Bruton did not want to talk about Benedictine, but he admits it has become harder to ignore the subject – and the team they are tied with at the top of the NACC standings with two games left in the regular season.

The Lakeland (6-2, 4-0) and Benedictine (6-2, 4-0) game usually has quite a bit riding on it and in some way affects the conference's automatic playoff bid. When you add on top of it that Benedictine knocked Lakeland out of playoff contention last year in the final game of the season with a 16-0 victory, it adds special meaning.

Then there is the man who was Bruton's boss last season, Kevin Doherty, who left the Muskies to become offensive coordinator at Benedictine. Get the picture, now?

But both teams still have to win this week – Lakeland against Rockford and Benedictine against Aurora. Bruton admitted that last year's loss, which kept the Muskies out of the playoffs by one point according to the NACC tiebreaker system, still stings.

"It definitely has motivated us this year knowing that we were so close last year," Bruton said this week as his squad prepared against the Regents. "I really thought last year that we had the best team early in the conference season, but we didn't improve at the rate Benedictine did and by the end of the year, they were a better football team than us.

"It's something that we've focused on this year making sure that we improve each week and taking it a week at a time. We felt last year like we were going to get it done but we went down to Benedictine and did not coach well or play well and didn't get the job done."

Bruton is hoping for a different outcome as the Muskies are on a five-game winning streak after starting the season 1-2. Offensively, Lakeland's new spread offense has helped sophomore quarterback Michael Whitley blossom while wide receiver Kezlow Smith has turned into one of biggest scoring threats in the conference. 

"Kezlow is really a dynamic player," Bruton said of Smith, who is averaging 91.5 yards per game receiving and recently started running the ball from the backfield. "I believe he's one of the best athletes in the conference and probably all of Division III. He's one of those guys that make everyone better because of his presence because other teams have to account for him."

In Lakeland's 48-21 win over Concordia (Wis.) last Saturday, the Muskies decided to expand Smith's role and use him at running back as well. Smith rushed for 100 yards on 12 carries and caught six passes for another 61.

"We toyed with the idea before and decided to put him back there," Bruton said. "He's a dynamic playmaker who can score just about every time he touches the ball."

Whitley has grown quickly to become one of the Muskies' leaders, passing for 2,559 yards this season (319.9 yards per game) and 25 touchdowns against six interceptions. He is also Lakeland's leading rusher with 383 yards on 127 carries.

"He was our backup quarterback last year and while he played in most of the games, he wasn't our guy," Bruton said. "I think he's improved every week and has really taken off the last three games. We have a really good receiving corps, so his job is like a point guard to make the right reads and get them the ball in space."

"He's become a face on campus as a sophomore because he's such a great leader and person. He just attracts people to him. He has all the intangibles you'd want for your quarterback and leader," Bruton added.

Bruton said with Michael Esiobu (47 catches, 605 yards) and Dezmen Morse (27-487) making big contribution to receiving corps along with Smith, it has taken some of the load off Whitley.

Lakeland's defense has come along behind defensive lineman Josh Schneider and free safety Landon Derginer. Schneider is the team leader in tackles for losses with 16.5 and sacks with 6.5. Derginer is the Muskies tackles leader (47), interception leader (4) and has returned one fumble 71 yards for a touchdown this season.

"Josh is one of the best athletes on the team as a defensive lineman and is just a load to block," Bruton said. "He's very explosive off the ball. Landon plays extremely hard, has a great motor and is always around the ball. We have a very aggressive defense and Landon is the guy to count on to make everything right. He makes plays three yards from the line of scrimmage to 30 yards." 

Lakeland has not advanced to the playoffs since 2009, and Bruton said for seniors like Smith and Schneider, it would mean a culmination of a lot of hard work to move the program past its 2-8 season in 2012 when they came to the school.

"We weren't a very good team then, but those guys stuck around and helped us right the ship," Bruton said. "We've been on the cusp of the conference championship for the past two years but we haven't gotten it done. We'd like to get over that hump. It would be a validation of all the hard work they put into this."

First, Lakeland must take care of Rockford before they can think about the NACC title.

North Central now rooting for Illinois Wesleyan

The game of football and conference play can make strange bedfellows, so there was little surprise that after the No. 16 North Central Cardinals defeated the No. 22 Illinois Wesleyan Titans 33-15 Saturday, they began rooting for their opponents.

But here is the logic behind the madness. North Central (5-3 overall) and Illinois Wesleyan (7-1) are both 4-1 in CCIW play and both looking up at No. 7 Wheaton (8-0, 5-0). The Thunder travel to Bloomington, Ill. next Saturday for a 2 p.m. game against the Titans.

The Titans can force a three-way tie for the CCIW title by beating Wheaton, throwing the conference automatic playoff bid up in the air. If Wheaton wins, then it's all over. The Thunder will clinch at least a tie for the conference title, but with a previous win over North Central, Wheaton will secure the CCIW's playoff slot.

Needless to say, North Central players hadn't even left Tucci Stadium field after Saturday's win when thoughts immediately turned to their opponent's game next week.

"Wesleyan was our enemy for the week, but we'll be cheering for them this upcoming week," North Central offensive lineman Eric Knaperek said in a post-game interview. 

Cardinals linebacker Tom Sora added: "Our main focus was to get the win and worry about how things will play out next week later. Now that we got the win, we're hoping for (Illinois Wesleyan) and rooting for them to get healthy and get back out there (against Wheaton)."

Benedictine goes old school in win over Rockford

In the age of pass offense and the stress on throwing the football to stretch the field against defenses, Benedictine completed one pass in a game Saturday at Rockford – and won 20-7.

In weather conditions in Rockford, Ill. that were described in game notes as "rainy, cold, nasty," Benedictine quarterback Ryan Sample completed 1 of 7 passes for nine yards. That pass, though, went to Elijah Walker for a touchdown with 8:02 left in the second quarter to give the Eagles a 13-7 lead after the missed extra point.

Sample would run for another touchdown, a one-yarder with 2:42 left in the game to put the game away against the Regents.

"We played an old fashioned grind it out game in the mud," Benedictine coach Jon Cooper said. "We handled it well and it was a great team victory. Due to the conditions, neither team was effective passing. We resorted to keeping it on the ground, and our line along with Derek Miles (29 carries for 165 yards) and Joshua Williams (16-86) had outstanding games. The defense came up big again this week."

Rockford was 1-7 in the passing game for minus-15 yards while rushing for 127 yards. Benedictine is now 6-2 and 4-0 in NACC play and will play at home against Aurora on Saturday.

Earlham losing streak at 22, but just barely

Getting rid of a losing streak isn't easy, but the Earlham Quakers came so close in their 35-34 overtime loss to Hanover this past Saturday at home in Richmond, Ind. It wasn't from the lack of effort on the Quakers' part – just apparently snake-bitten.

Earlham quarterback Wesley Hundley connected with wide receiver Jalen Kenner on a 34-yard touchdown pass with five seconds left in its game against the Hanover Panthers and then connected again on the two-point conversion to tie the contest 28-all to take it into overtime.

Earlham got the ball first in the overtime and scored on three plays, ending with a Sam Panton 12-yard scoring run. As fate would have it, Adam Jolly missed the point after, giving the Quakers a 34-28 lead.

The Quakers defense held Hanover to a fourth-and-three on the Earlham five, but Panthers quarterback Zach Donan found wide receiver Dontre Woodruff for a four-yard catch for the first down. Running back Justin Conners scored on the next play and kicker Ben Wheeler made the PAT for the Hanover 35-34 victory.

Earlham's losing streak extends to the 2013 season when the Quakers lost their last three games and they have not won a contest in 2014 or this season, totaling 22 contests.

Game of the week

No. 7 Wheaton at No. 22 Illinois Wesleyan, 2 p.m.—This was explained above as to why North Central will be such Illinois Wesleyan fans on Saturday. An Illinois Wesleyan win may also help get two CCIW teams into the playoffs. A Wheaton win would give Illinois Wesleyan two losses, making it very difficult to be selected as a Pool C at-large team.

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Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss
1999-2000 columnist: Don Stoner

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