|Senior linebacker Matt Barrett takes flight over a would-be blocker from Macalester.
d3photography.com file photo by Steve Frommell
By Adam Turer
The Green Knights gave up 34 points in a season-opening double-overtime loss to UW-Stevens Point on Sept. 2, 2017.
That was a turning point that led St. Norbert to the second round of the 2018 playoffs, and another meeting with a WIAC opponent.
Drew Vanderlin knows the WIAC well. He arrived at St. Norbert in 2016 after spending four seasons coaching the defensive line at UW-Stevens Point. In his three seasons coordinating the Green Knights defense, St. Norbert has yielded just 10.6 points per game in Midwest Conference play.
After falling short to Monmouth in each of the past two seasons, the Green Knights broke through to claim the MWC title and automatic playoff berth in 2018. They did it on the backs of the defense, which first realized its potential in that 2017 heartbreaker against Vanderlin’s former program.
“We’ve always been a very well-coached defense. I think we really started peaking the first game of last season,” said senior linebacker Matt Gurgone. “We fell short but realized what our defense is capable of. We knew we had most of our defense returning this year. That experience really played a key role in our success this season.”
The Green Knights dropped another double-overtime thriller to a WIAC opponent this season, falling to UW-Eau Claire in Week 2. After shutting down Trine in the first round of the playoffs, they now get a crack at the big dog of the WIAC, traveling to UW-Whitewater.
“We’re going to treat it like any other week. It doesn’t matter what conference we’re going against,” said senior linebacker Ben Kornowski. “We want to build on our momentum from the previous weeks, and keep fixing smaller things each week. It really doesn’t matter who we’re playing against.”
It doesn’t matter, for instance, if the Green Knights are facing the nation’s leading rusher. They proved that in Round 1, holding Trine’s Lamar Carswell to a season-low 110 yards on 32 carries. Carswell averaged 3.44 yards per carry against St. Norbert; his previous season-low was 5.41 yards per rush. He had scored multiple touchdowns in every game this season, but was kept out of the end zone altogether by the Green Knights.
“We were really excited when we drew Trine because we knew they were a heavy running offense. We knew it was a huge opportunity to show what we can do,” said Kornowski. “We never had any doubt that we’d be able to slow him down. Everybody did their job and trusted each other.”
Trine’s offense was shutout in St. Norbert’s 31-7 victory. The Green Knights defense continued its scoring streak. Kornowski’s pick-six keyed the 10-7 MWC championship win over Monmouth in Week 11. Gurgone scored on two consecutive third-quarter snaps against Trine, returning an interception 26 yards then scooping up a fumble forced by Mike Olijnyk and racing 35 yards to the house.
“We emphasize takeaways every day in practice. We don’t call them turnovers. We call them takeaways because we believe we’re taking the ball away. Our offense gets ticked off in practice, because our defense is always poking at the ball, even if the whistle has blown. It shows every single day,” said coach Dan McCarty. “We expect our players to be within the halo of the ball when the whistle blows. What you see on Saturdays from our defense is everything you see in every single rep of practice during the week. It’s become second nature for these guys.”
The game plans that Vanderlin put in to shut down Monmouth and Trine have the Green Knights feeling confident heading into their biggest challenge to date. They have seen firsthand that if they keep doing what they’ve been trained to do, they can deliver results against any competition.
“It starts with the passion that Drew brings to the defense and the meeting room and how much our players love playing for him and how much he loves our players,” said McCarty. “There’s lots of great schemes out there, but when you can maximize the most out of your players and really trust each other, you can play really fast on defense. It’s been neat to see the progress.”
McCarty has been able to focus much of his attention on the offense. He took over play-calling duties in Week 2, implementing a triple-option attack that can also spread opposing defenses in passing situations. While this offense is still working to maximize the potential of its new scheme, the defense is led by veteran players who are comfortable in their third year running their system.
“Last year was the first year that we really came together to understand the scheme and trust one another. We saw that really start to form last year,” said Kornowski. “With pretty much all the guys coming back, we knew this could be something special and that we couldn’t waste this opportunity.”
Last year’s heartbreak was additional motivation. The Green Knights fell to Monmouth in overtime, 9-6, in the MWC championship game. This year, they gained sweet revenge in another low-scoring defensive slugfest, 10-7. Kornowski’s interception return was the only touchdown of the game for St. Norbert.
“We had a great team last year and our defense really played great last year, too,” said McCarty. “We didn’t talk about it a lot, but that taste was certainly in all of our mouths after that conference championship game last year.”
Making their first playoff appearance since 2015, the Green Knights have embraced their underdog role. They felt confident going into their first round game against No. 12-ranked Trine, then handed the Thunder their first loss of the season. Knocking off unbeaten No. 5-ranked UW-Whitewater will be a bigger challenge, but one the Green Knights are excited about.
“We knew what we were capable of. Just because we were going into the playoffs playing a ranked team that people thought would roll over us, we felt good that we could show what we’ve been capable of all year,” said Gurgone. “Pretty much everyone on the outside is thinking we’re going to lose [this week]. The only thing that matters is what the people in this program believe.”
There are people outside of the program believing in St. Norbert, too. Specifically, fans of Wabash and the Hansen family. Kornowski got to know Evan Hansen, the Wabash linebacker who died by suicide earlier this season, when the two studied abroad together. The D-III linebackers quickly bonded over their love of football. They spent this past spring watching film and training together while traversing Spain, Morocco, and Scotland. Following Evan’s funeral, his parents attended a St. Norbert home game and met Ben. Although their friendship was brief, it has had a direct and lasting impact on Kornowski this season.
“We always talk about what’s your why and why you play and what drives you to play your best. I met Evan this spring, we trained together, I was fortunate enough to watch film and see how aggressive and what an unbelievable player he was,” said Kornowski, who added another interception in the victory over Trine. “Once I was able to meet his family and see the support they have for me, I really made it a point to emulate Evan on and off the field. I’m trying to play for Evan and myself every play. He’s still with us every day.”
After coming so close to the postseason the past two years, breaking through for the MWC title was cathartic. Earning the program’s first playoff win since 2003 brought even more excitement. The Green Knights are not done with their journey yet.
“As a program, we try to focus on what’s inside and what we believe in. We care about our players and they care about each other. We have a special type of family here,” said McCarty. “This team’s got a lot of confidence in itself. It was really enjoyable for me to see the smiles on the faces of our kids the last two weeks. These kids put in so much time and effort and it was really great for me to see that joy on their faces. Our guys are prepared and we’re excited for the challenge this week.”