By Adam Johnson
What do Buena Vista, Carleton, Loras and Augsburg all have in common?
They are all sitting atop their respective conferences after finishing under .500 last season -- including matching 1-7 records for Carleton and Loras.
So what's new this season?
"O-line, defense, special teams, depth," said Knights coach Kurt Ramler.
Carleton has used a stealth passing attack including a trio of record setting seniors. Quarterback Shane Henfling is throwing for nearly 300 yards per game and has tallied 10 touchdowns to only three interceptions. His targets include the speedy Chris Gardner who is hauling in 145 yards a game and has already posted five touchdowns including an amazing one hander against former conference rival Macalester on Saturday.
Henfling's other primary target is Matt Frank, the 6-5, 223 pound wide receiver who provides a massive target and pillow soft hands. Frank is notching just under 100 receiving yards a game and has four touchdowns on the season including a big 1-yard touchdown catch in the Knights upset of then-13th-ranked Bethel.
The Knights are also benefiting from newfound depth with 68 players on the roster up from 55 last year.
"We have senior leadership," said Ramler. "But we also have the ability to sprinkle in a few freshmen."
Two years ago, the Knights beat Bethel on what some might call a fluke trick play. This season, there was no fluke but rather a solid grinded out road win.
"It wasn't a fluky win," said Ramler. "It shows we have a chance to be decent."
Similarly, Loras entered the 2008 campaign coming off a 1-7 IIAC season last year and have already equaled their conference win total from 2007.
The Duhawks used every second of the game on Saturday to upset Coe 23-21 in their conference opener as Alex McGrew plunged into the end zone with 00:00 on the clock.
Much like Carleton, the Duhawks are also leaning on the senior leadership of their skill position players. McGrew, a senior, is rushing for 126 yards per outing and has tallied five touchdowns on the season, including all three against Coe.
"Our team chemistry is starting to come together," said coach Steve Osterberger. "We grew a lot over the offseason and realized how close we were to competing with some of the best teams in the conference.
Buena Vista and Augsburg are two teams that finished strong in 2007 winning three of their last four games and have built on that momentum this season.
Augsburg has a lethal combination of quarterback Jordan Berg to wide receiver, and Mr. Everything, Royce Winford. The two have combined this season for 311 yards and seven touchdowns. Through three games Berg is averaging 318 yards passing per game and has nine touchdowns.
On Saturday, in their conference opener against St. Olaf, the senior quarterback threw for 397 yards and three touchdowns -- all to Winford -- without an interception.
"Those guys are fun," said head coach Frank Haege. They're roommates and they're like brothers."
While their passing game is pin point accurate, their running game is also serviceable as they have rushed for six touchdowns on the season -- mostly in short yardage situations.
"You can't empty the box against us," said Haege.
The Auggies have already upset IIAC power Wartburg and beat a St. Olaf team that went six overtimes to beat St. Thomas in Week 3.
"It's a confidence thing," said Haege. "You win those close ones and you start to say 'Hey we can do this.' "
Buena Vista has always shown flashes of brilliance -- they put one of the two losses in the Bethel Royals dream season in 2007. However, consistency has been their downfall.
This year, the Beavers are 2-0 in conference and using a balanced attack to get the wins. Senior quarterback Matt Pearey is throwing for more than 200 yards per game and is yet to throw an interception.
"I think it's a balance of senior leadership and protecting the football," said head coach Jay Anderson. "Not protecting the football has hurt us in the past."
Anderson also attributes a more consistent running game and a defense that is faster and producing more turnovers for their early season success.
So don't adjust your computer screen settings or rub your eyes too hard when looking at the MIAC and IIAC standings. Carleton, Loras, Augsburg and Buena Vista are all making an early-season run and showing last year has no effect on this year.
So what's the common denominator?
Levell headed runner
UW-Whitewater freshman running back Levell Coppage flirted with the century mark on Saturday totaling 95 yards rushing in the Warhawks 60-7 thrashing of the Puget Sound Loggers. However, he managed to hit pay dirt four times on the day tying a Warhawk record last matched by wide receiver Derek Stanley against Lakeland in 2006. The last running back to score four TDs was Chad Wurth, vs. UW-Oshkosh in 2003.
Cobbers defense clobbers
Drawing perennial powers St. John's and Bethel right out of the gate in MIAC action is usually never a good draw but Concordia-Moorhead has managed to turn back both schools to jump to an early 2-0 record on the year. The Cobbers have used an efficient offense and a stifling defense to stake an early claim on conference title aspirations. St. John's and Bethel combined to total 13 points against the Cobber defense and that includes a 78 yard kickoff return from Bethel. The Cobbers keyed on Bethel running back Logan Flannery holding the All MIAC player to 41 yards on 16 carries. It marked the first time all season he has been held under 120 yards. The Cobber defense gets a week off before welcoming St. Thomas to town for Concordia's Homecoming game.
You gotta win the close ones
If the game is close, there's a good chance that UW-Stevens Point is going to win it. Saturday's one point victory over Azusa Pacific marked the fifth win out of the last six for the Pointers by three points or less. The past three seasons, the Pointers have won 10 games by three points or less including five in 2006, three in 2007 and two this season.
Record day at the office
Whitworth junior running back Adam Anderson posted a school-record 324 all-purpose yards and scored four touchdowns to lead the Pirates to a 41-35 victory over Chapman. Anderson carried the ball 23 times for 144 yards and two scores, caught five passes for 56 yards and another touchdown and returned three kickoffs for 124 yards, including an 82-yard return for a touchdown. It was Whitworth's first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2004.
Johnnies find the missing link
After running a platoon at the quarterback position through the first three games of the season, St. John's appears to have found their man. Junior quarterback Jordan Hansel came off the bench in the second quarter and ended the day 19 of 36 passing for 283 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for another score to lead the Johnnies to a 31-17 victory over Gustavus. The lack of strong play from the quarterback through the first two weeks led to a closer than usual game with UW-River Falls and a 9-6 defeat at home to Concordia-Moorhead.
Auggies becoming win hoggies
After winning three of four to end the 2007 campaign, Augsburg has continued their run into 2008 starting the season 3-0 for the first time since 1999. Riding the arm of quarterback Jordan Berg and the All-MIAC talents of Royce Winford, the Auggies have been able to upset perennial IIAC power Wartburg and are coming off a whipping of the St. Olaf Oles in which they led 49-14 late in the game before winning 49-21. That is the most points the Auggies have scored since a 50-14 victory over Macalester in 2001. Augsburg battles the perennial conference powers down the stretch in conference play so the old adage of "It's not how you start, it's how you finish" will be a big part of their success.
News, notes and things you may have missed
• Linfield sophomore quarterback Cole Franklin won his first game as a starter leading the Wildcats to a 14-7 overtime victory over Southern Oregon.
• UW-Platteville's 13-9 victory over Augustana denied Vikings head coach Jim Barnes his 100th career victory.
• Menlo defensive end Robbie Fritts returned a blocked point-after-try for a two points in the Oaks 38-20 victory over Whittier.
• Greenville outgained Principia 515-75 in total offense in their 59-0 victory.
• Simpson running back Adam Reutzel tallied 209 yards and two touchdowns in the Storm's 28-9 victory over Luther. He also punted four times for a 47 yard average.
• St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso tallied his first MIAC career victory.
• Whitewater has won 21 consecutive WIAC games, dating back to a loss to UW-La Crosse in the 2004 season finale. The Warhawks are also unbeaten in their last 26 games in Perkins Stadium.
• Wartburg defensive back Josh Faaborg recorded three interceptions against Cornell, tying a single-game school record with former standouts Kyle Kreinbring and Dave Devine.
• A Loras touchdown by Alex McGrew with 0:00 on the clock gave the Duhawks a 23-21 victory over Coe. McGrew finished with three touchdowns on the day.