Muskies power starts up front

More news about: Lakeland
Michael Whitley puts up big numbers, thanks to the big guys in front of him.
Lakeland Athletics photo

By Clyde Hughes

While quarterback Michael Whitley and the skill position players have gotten most of the headlines this season for Lakeland (5-2, 3-0 in NACC) going into the Muskies’ big game at Aurora (4-3, 3-0) on Saturday, coach Colin Bruton said the biggest difference has come on the offensive line.

Led by senior right tackle Jack Merrill and sophomore transfer center Jonah Carlson, Bruton calls the group – which includes juniors Dustin Peterson and Ryan Frahm and sophomore Steve Ragin – the best offensive line he's had in his 11 years at Lakeland.

"They've really made a big difference and that has allowed us to do a lot of different things offensively," said Bruton. "We've been able to run the ball more effectively this season and basically take what the defense gives us. We're not relying on Michael to week in and week out put up 300- and 400-yard games. All that starts up front."

Bruton called Merrill, one of the team captains, the emotional leader on the offensive line. Carlson, a transfer from Michigan Tech, has quickly fit in along the front five.

"Jack has been a three-year starter for us," Bruton said. "Jonah makes all the line calls for us up front and has really become an anchor for us up front."

Since transferring to Lakeland, Jonah Carlson has anchored the middle.
Lakeland Athletics photo

That has made Lakeland harder to defend. In last week's game against Wisconsin Lutheran, the Warriors were determined to slow down Whitley and the Muskies' passing attack. Whitley, one of the nation's passing yardage leaders, had a season-low 194 yards. But running back Dezmon Eddie rushed for a career-high 235 yards on 18 carries.

"We can beat you in a lot of different ways and there's not a lot of teams that can do that," Bruton said. "There's been some games where we've rushed for over 400 yards and lot of other games we've thrown vertically down field and then we've used our screen game and been really efficient. I think we're getting better offensively each week."

Bruton said it has been the blocking of his wide receivers in the screen game, not so much their catches, which has truly added a new dimension to the Muskies offense.

"The receivers have made a huge commitment to blocking on our screen game and they have become good, physical blockers," Bruton said. "They have been selflessly blocking for each other all season that that has made that part of our game really effective."

He said Whitley is still the Muskies' catalyst. After all, he's ranked in the top six nationally in six different categories, including total offense (third, 385.4 yards per game), passing yards per game (third, 342.0 per game), points responsible for (third, 194), passing yardage (fifth, 2,394) and passing touchdowns (sixth, 25).

"Michael Whitley is our quarterback and our leader," Bruton said. "We think of him as our point guard who has to get the ball to the right places. He's been great at that because I think we have a lot of different guys who can hurt you."

Those guys start along the offensive line.

Showdown time in Midwest Conference

Well, it is just how the schedule broke for these four teams, but the last of the division's undefeated squads are all playing each other Saturday, with the winners getting a lock for at least a share of the division title and a shot at the November 11 MWC championship game.

In the North Division, St. Norbert (5-2, 3-0 in MWC) takes on Macalester (5-2, 3-0) at 2 p.m. If St. Norbert wins, the Green Knights are in, regardless of what happens the following week against Beloit (0-7, 0-3) because they would already have wins over the two teams in the division with one loss (Macalester and University of Chicago). If Macalester wins, the Scots will still need a victory over the Maroons (4-3, 2-1) in Chicago the following week to wrap things up. That may not be an easy task with St. Norbert escaping with a hard-fought 10-0 home victory over Chicago on Oct. 14. After losing their first two games to UW-Stevens Point (34-33 in OT) and Benedictine (29-7), the Green Knights have used their defense to steamroll opponents, surrendering just 7.2 points per game over that period while scoring an average of 38.4 points per contest. Senior linebacker Ben Kornowski has led the Green Knights defense with 25 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss, backed by senior defensive backs Tyler Jensen and Sam Koss, who each have 20 tackles. Macalester is led by senior quarterback Christian Adams, the leading passer in the Midwest Conference, completing 139 of 233 passes for 1,880 yards with 15 touchdowns against seven interceptions. His favorite target is junior wide receiver Alec Beatty, who has 43 receptions for 729 yards with eight touchdowns.

In the South Division game, Monmouth (6-1, 3-0) travels to Lake Forest (7-0, 3-0) for another 2 p.m. tilt. This game matches Lake Forest's potent offense featuring running back Joey Valdivia and quarterback Jagan Cleary against the stingy Scots defense led by linebacker Kyle Schultz (see last week's column). Monmouth, though, had its best offensive output of the season in its 61-10 victory over Cornell, with DeAndre Wright rushing for 117 of the Scots' 560 yards of total offense that game. Valdivia continues to lead the nation in rushing yards (1,359), yards per game (194.1) and rushing touchdowns (21). Cleary is eighth in the nation in completion percentage (135-196, 68.9 percent) and has thrown 18 touchdowns against four interceptions. It is pretty much the same scenario in this division. Monmouth has already beaten one-loss Illinois College (59-14 on Oct. 14). If the Scots beat the Foresters, they are in, regardless of what happens in its game next week against Knox (4-3, 1-2). If Lake Forest wins, then they still have that Nov. 4 date at Illinois College that they must pull off to secure a clean South Division title.

North Central still owns its destiny in CCIW

Despite the loss to No. 23 Wheaton (6-2, 4-2 in CCIW) in the game that finished last Monday, the No. 10-ranked Cardinals (6-1, 4-1) were quickly able to right the ship and they still control their own destiny from here on out. The Cardinals have already beaten the other two one-loss teams in the CCIW (Illinois Wesleyan 26-13 on Sept. 16 and Millikin 51-21 on Sept. 23). Millikin (6-1, 4-1) will play at No. 12 Illinois Wesleyan (7-1, 5-1) on Nov. 11, which will knock one of those teams out of the lead. In short, if the Cardinals win out, they will at least get another share of the CCIW title and take the conference's automatic bid with them to the playoffs.

Illinois Wesleyan, which has been ranked since its win over UW-Whitewater earlier in the year, could get one of those precious few at-large bids if it wins out. Millikin, which is sitting just outside of the Top 25 poll, could make a strong argument for itself if it beats Illinois Wesleyan. In a conference that has three nationally-ranked teams, it looks like Wheaton may be the odd-man out. Like I said last week, it would take quite a group of unusual circumstances to sneak Wheaton into the CCIW title and that window closes dramatically each week.

Franklin's path clearer in the HCAC

The Grizzlies took a big step in reclaiming the HCAC's automatic playoff bid that it lost to Rose-Hulman last year, getting its revenge in a come-from-behind 29-22 road victory over the Fightin' Engineers last Saturday. Franklin's Chase Burton continues to put up big numbers the way he has all season. Burton is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation in passing yardage per game (351.7), third in passing yards (2,462), fourth in passing touchdowns (26) and fifth in total offense (359.1 yards per game).

While Franklin's road is easier, coach Mike Leonard said last week that it is not a done deal and the Grizzlies will have to maintain a high level of play. Franklin will close out with home games against Mount St. Joseph (5-3, 4-2 in HCAC) Saturday and Anderson (1-7, 1-5) on Nov. 4, and the Victory Bell game at Hanover (3-4, 3-2) on Nov. 11. The Grizzlies will secure at least a share of the title with two wins and the outright title by running the table.

Game to watch

Millikin (5-1, 4-1 in CCIW) at Carthage (5-2, 3-2), 2 p.m. – Hey, Carthage is really, really good. If the Red Men were not in the CCIW, they would be getting a lot more buzz. They had nationally-ranked Illinois Wesleyan down 10-0 at halftime on the road before the Titans rallied back for a 13-10 victory. As well as the Big Blue have been playing this season, they will have to play one of their best games of the season to avoid the upset. But it's hard to call much of any game in the CCIW this year an upset. Millikin's quarterback Nicco Stepina will give a strong test to the Red Men's defense and vice versa. This should be a good one.

Player to watch

Chaiten Tomlin, quarterback Mount St. Joseph, vs. Franklin – Tomlin has thrown for 30 touchdowns this season, second best in all of Division III and his 2,218 passing yards in the ninth most in the nation. It makes you wonder if the trainers will be able to keep enough air in the balls between Tomlin and Franklin's signal caller Chase Burton. But if the Lions plan on mounting an upset, it will likely come on the arm of Tomlin, who passed for a Division III record nine touchdowns in his last outing. Good one to keep an eye on.

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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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