A new development at Wartburg

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Matt Sacia handing off
Matt Sacia has done a much better job taking care of the football this year as a junior for Wartburg.
Wartburg athletics photo

By Josh Smith

A year ago, the Wartburg football team had several inexperienced players gaining experience on the job. And quarterback Matt Sacia is the first to acknowledge he was among those players in need of development.

But Sacia and the other young Knights learned a lot from the 2016 season, and they already see it paying dividends this year.

“I think we’re playing well together. Last year we had a lot of guys that had very little experience,” said Sacia, now in his junior season. “With a lot of those guys back this year, I think that experience is showing, especially in critical times.”

Noting the team has a long way to go to reach their goals, Sacia values the time he got under center as a sophomore, and even the tutelage he got from his predecessor the year before. He said it helped make him the team leader he is today.

“The coaches were really helpful. They pushed me every day to constantly be better,” Sacia said. “Logan Schrader, our starter when I was a freshman, was a big help to me.

“I think the biggest thing, going from a sophomore to a junior, more guys are looking up to you than you had the year before. Being able to go into this year with a full season of experience was really helpful,” he continued.

“I think he had a really good year in his first year starting for us,” Wartburg head coach Rick Willis said. “(He’s) athletic, has a strong arm and makes good decisions.

“The only thing was getting him out there more and more, having him get more game experience. There’s really no substitute for that,” he added. “He’s developed a lot of confidence in himself, and I know our team has really developed a lot of confidence in him as well.”

The choices Sacia makes with the football is the greatest attribute he brings to the position. After throwing 11 interceptions a year ago, the quarterback has only thrown one pick this season while completing 71 percent of his passes.

“I think that’s really one of Matt’s strengths – his decision-making and his understanding of what we’re trying to do and where he needs to be looking,” Willis said.

Sacia, who is a calming presence in the huddle and a quiet leader, said the decisions he makes with the football and his efficiency as a passer is a result of becoming more comfortable within the offense, another benefit of starting as an underclassman.

However, Sacia emphasizes the fact that he isn’t Wartburg’s only threat on offense.

“I like to think our offense, as a whole, is a great weapon,” Sacia said, adding he is currently as in-sync as ever with his receivers.

Willis agrees with his signal-caller, noting the team’s 3-0 start to the season can be attributed in part to the team’s skill players developing in addition to other areas.

“I think our offensive line is showing the experience they have there,” Willis said. “I think our defense is playing in a faster, more active manner than we were at times a year ago. I think we’ve added some playmakers to that group that we were lacking at times a year ago.”

JoJo McNair is one of those playmakers, logging 14 total tackles, four pass break-ups and an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown in Saturday’s 30-20 win over Wash. U.

In the win, Sacia completed 20-of-32 passes for 217 yards and scored a rushing touchdown.

Wartburg is the only unbeaten squad in the IIAC, but the team recognizes the season is still young.

“We are certainly excited about getting off to a good start. That’s something that’s important to us. But in a lot of ways, that’s all it is – a good start,” Willis said. “There’s still a long way to go and a lot of great challenges still in front of us.”

With that, the coach is excited about the play he has seen from wideouts Riley Brockway and Griffin Brennecke as well as running backs Dylan Binion, Connor Schrader and Parker Hammel.

“We feel good about the guys surrounding Matt as well. Hopefully, we can keep everybody healthy and continue to have good things happen,” Willis said.

The Knights have a clear goal, according to Sacia. Wartburg wants to win the IIAC championship and return to the playoffs.

“I think we have a well-balanced team that can play well in all three phases of the game,” Willis said. “Guys are hungry to prove we can be a championship-caliber team.”

Number of the week

37,355 – as in the attendance of the Tommie-Johnnie game. With four of the top-five largest D-III crowds ever, this rivalry game’s attendance figure appears here annually. But this year’s edition at Target Field doubled the previous attendance mark of 17,535 set by UW-Oshkosh and UW-Whitewater last October. The game itself was an outstanding defensive battle. No. 10 St. Thomas held the sixth-ranked Johnnies to 151 yards of total offense, including 1 yard rushing, while the Johnnies’ defense produced a pair of turnovers to keep the game tight.

The rest of the West

Chazz Middlebrook racked up 161 yards rushing on 24 attempts to guide undefeated MacMurray past Iowa Wesleyan, 32-14. … Mark Johnson piled up 155 receiving yards on nine catches and hauled in three of Tyler Blang’s four touchdown passes as UW-Platteville cruised to a 56-22 win over Lakeland. … Sam Sasso passed for 340 yards and threw four touchdown passes to help Simpson defeat Coe, 38-33. … George Fox rolled past UW-Eau Claire, 44-0, as Grant Schroeder threw four touchdown passes, including two to Lane Hadley. … Eureka got 131 rushing yards and three touchdowns from LeAnthony Reasnover during a 44-20 win over Crown. … Loras and Buena Vista combined for 1,143 total yards of offense, as the Duhawks prevailed 73-34. Rob Kelly threw four touchdowns and Ike Cloward ran for four scores. … Bethel quarterback Jake Marsh finished the game 14-of-16 with 323 yards and four touchdowns powering the Royals past St. Olaf, 64-7. … Martin Luther rode the combination of Zachary Bloomquist and Josh Arndt to a 34-20 win over Greenville. The quarterback and wide receiver connected for three touchdowns in the victory as Arndt finished the game with five catches and 138 yards. … UW-Stevens Point wide receiver Jerry Williams caught four passes for 123 yards and scored three times. Steve Herra added two scoring receptions of his own, and the Pointers handled Adrian, 41-28. … Sam Markham caught eight passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns as Central took down Nebraska Wesleyan, 52-27. … Nick Heenie caught 10 passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns in Augsburg’s 48-28 win over Carleton. Ray Guyton Jr. chipped in 11 catches for 146 yards and a TD. … Noah McDonald paced the Northwestern (Minn.) defense with a team-high 11 tackles, including one for a loss, and a fumble recovery. The Eagles went on to best Westminster (Mo.), 10-7. … Nick Slavens capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown with :55 to play, vaulting Luther to a 21-17 win over Dubuque. … Michael Veldman threw four touchdown passes and compiled 392 yards to lead Gustavus Adolphus past Hamline, 51-7. … Zach Edwards threw four touchdown passes, finishing with 266 yards, during St. Scholastica’s 37-3 win over Minnesota-Morris. … Trenton Smith rushed for two scores to help UW-La Crosse build a 38-0 lead and eventually take down Carroll, 41-6.

Rank ‘em

Eight teams from the West Region were ranked in this week’s Top 25 poll, including four in the top-10, while another five received votes.

UW-Oshkosh remained ranked No. 3. St. Thomas vaulted three places to No. 7, ahead of No. 8 Linfield. St. John’s slipped three spots to No. 9.

UW-Platteville and Whitworth each climbed one spot to Nos. 12 and 14, respectively. Concordia-Moorhead held steady at No. 21 while UW-Stout rose two spots to No. 22.

Wartburg (22), Redlands (15), UW-Whitewater (13), George Fox (10) and UW-La Crosse (6) received votes in this week’s poll.

Be heard

Do you have a story idea for the Around the West column? Contact me about approaching milestones, broken records, breakout players or any other storylines in the Region. Or just drop me a note to let me know what you think of the column. All ideas and feedback are welcome. Email me at josh.smith@d3sports.com or follow me on Twitter @By_Josh_Smith.

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Josh Smith has covered Division III sports for more than five years. He writes for multiple publications, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and lives in southern Wisconsin near UW-Whitewater, where he graduated with a degree in print journalism.

2011-12 columns: Jason Galleske
2010: Tim Walsh
2003-09: Adam Johnson
1999-2000: Don Stoner 

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