PITTSBURGH – One thing stands out while coming down
the stairs toward Carnegie Mellon’s locker room: A portrait
of the 1990 Tartans, who finished 10-0 and lost in the playoffs to
Stagg Bowl-bound Lycoming.
Well, that was the first thing people noticed.
Saturday morning, before his team took on Millsaps, head coach Rich Lackner taped a team photo of this year’s Tartans, then 10-0, over the 1990 squad. Then his team, in a nearly picture-perfect effort, went out and erased 27 years of playoff futility, winning for the first time since 1979, a 31-25 victory against Minnesota-Morris in Lackner’s first year as an assistant coach.
“I’ve loved every team I’ve ever coached here,” said Lackner, Carnegie Mellon head coach since 1986. “They’ve all had their special moments. But if you ever ask me about the 1990 team, I know all their records. I remember Lycoming like it was yesterday. I know the captains, everything.”
That team, despite the 17-7 first-round loss to the Warriors, who went on to lose the championship game 21-14 to Allegheny in overtime, had lived in Tartans lore. Maybe it had been on a pedestal a bit too long, as Lackner’s players were eager to replace the portrait with their own.
“The first thing that catches your eye is the nine -- … the 2006 team photo up there,” Lackner said. “It still says UAA champs, 10-0.”
The 2006 Tartans, ranked No. 24 in the D3football.com Top 25, will need to amend the record, but not before they finish their season. And even with a second-round game at No. 3 Wesley scheduled for Saturday, with a good-enough offense and a smothering defense, who knows how far they can go?
Lackner, a three-time all-Presidents Athletic Conference linebacker, was a semifinalist as a senior in 1978. Carnegie Mellon beat Dayton 24-21 in the first round before losing to eventual champion Baldwin-Wallace. The next year, also in an eight-team field, the Tartans beat the Cougars to make the semifinals before Ithaca, the eventual Stagg Bowl winner, beat them 15-6.
Though the Majors and Tartans, with heavily contrasting styles, played Saturday’s first half to a scoreless draw, Carnegie Mellon was in perfect position. Having held the ball for 20:04 and gaining 98 yards on 26 carries in their Wing-T offense, the table was set for the Tartans to wear down the Majors, which eventually happened during the 21-0 second half.
Millsaps came into the game on a seven-game winning streak, having dethroned 13-time SCAC champion Trinity in Week 11. Built on speed and the slithery abilities of quarterback Juan Joseph, the Majors were scoring 33 points per game. The Tartans may not have been as athletically gifted, as they won’t be this week against Wesley. But they played a mixture of two-deep zones, keeping the Millsaps passing game in front of them and not missing tackles. They also cut loose a front four that, well, cut loose.
“I do not feel like we did a good job of handling
their pressure,” Majors coach Mike DuBose said. “We
could not establish any running game, and when you can’t run
it and you can’t handle pressure, it’s going to be a
The Majors gave up only seven sacks all season. Three came on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for Joseph’s ability to escape and buy time to throw, it could have easily been double that. But the biggest play by a defensive lineman came with the Majors driving at the start of the fourth quarter, down two touchdowns. On the 13th play of the drive, Steve Curran snatched a Joseph screen pass out of the air at the Carnegie Mellon 24. The Tartans killed two minutes, punted, and intercepted Joseph again, this time at the Majors’ 46. Eight running plays later, Robert Gimson’s 17-yard TD run made it 21-0.
While Millsaps played well defensively (the Tartans missed on all seven third down conversions and once on fourth in the first half), there aren’t too many defenses who can withstand 40:15 on the field and 58 rushing attempts – 25 by 235-pound fullback Travis Sivek and 23 by 205-pound halfback Robert Gimson. The Tartans rushed for 260 yards.
The Tartans struck first with 7:54 left in the third quarter, as Sivek finished a 13-play drive with a 3-yard TD. Millsaps, mixing a variety of screens, short outs and over-the-middle passes against Carnegie Mellon’s loose zones, quickly moved to the Tartans’ 22, where the drive stalled when star receiver Chris Jackson bobbled a fourth-and-3 catch as he was going out of bounds.
Carnegie Mellon turned around and went 78 yards on eight plays, spurred by a 46-yard Doug Facemyer-to-Mark Davis pass that accounted for all but 12 of the Tartans’ passing yards on the day.
Curran’s interception killed the Majors’ next drive, as did Jonathan Scholl’s subsequent pick. Millsaps put together another long drive, this one eight plays before Joseph fumbled on a fourth-and-4, under pressure from Trent Sisson and James Rogers.
DuBose did nothing but praise the Tartans after the game, saying the better team “by far” won.
“They’re a very well-coached team in all phases of the game,” DuBose said. “Defensively, there’s no missed assignments. If there’s a play to be made, they make it. Their schemes are good. Their pressure package is good.”
While DuBose said his team lacked focus at the hotel the night before and the morning of the game, Lackner said his team could be found in the dictionary under F.
“We define focus in this program … You don’t become a Carnegie Mellon student unless you can focus academically.”
Their football focus never wavered on Saturday either.
For that, the Tartans’ reward is a little bit of respect in Division III circles that scoffed at their schedule – the combined record of their opponents, including Millsaps and excluding the Tartans’ 11 wins, is still only 44-55 (.444). The reward is also a game against the Wolverines, who are probably a far more refined version of what Millsaps hopes to be someday. Wesley, the surprise of the 2005 postseason, struggled just once in the regular season, against Salisbury.
Although the Tartans haven’t trailed all year, the Wolverines were behind briefly in their playoff opener against Dickinson. Then they won going away, 49-21. Wesley and Carnegie Mellon did split a pair of games in 2003 and 2004, with the Tartans’ 24-10 win against the Wolverines one of two blemishes on an eight-win season.
The Tartans get to take all that on instead of going home for the holiday.
“This will probably be the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had in my life,” Lackner said. “I know these guys are more than willing to give up Thanksgiving with their families to be one of the 16 Division III teams still playing.”
Anything to get that 2006 team portrait up on the wall for good.
'Playing for the right reasons'
Have you ever long believed something, without any doubts, and felt validated when you heard someone else put your thoughts into words?
That’s how I felt talking to DuBose last Saturday.
On the day of the Iron Bowl, Auburn couldn’t have been further from the former Alabama coach’s mind. Eight-hundred miles from Tuscaloosa, DuBose took a giant step with his new team. And although he said Millsaps was a good team with a lot of work to do before it is a great program, DuBose knew exactly how he felt about Division III and its playoffs.
“The thing I love about Division III is the purity of the game,” said DuBose, who could have been snatching the words right out of any longtime D3 fan’s mouth. “The kids are all playing for the right reasons. Sometimes in Division I, they’ve lost the direction of what’s important.”
Powerful words coming from a man who played for the legendary Bear Bryant and has coached at several stops from high school to the NFL. They certainly carry weight and can’t be brushed off as those from a Division III coach/player/fan just dying to be respected like the big boys.
DuBose implied that individuals’ pursuit of NFL dreams, rather than focusing on college, was one of the things that he disliked about running a Division I-A program. He told the Huntsville Times he hadn’t “kept up with (the Alabama program).” He told me Saturday that he was “interested to see who won” the Auburn-Alabama game, but quite obviously he had more important things on his mind at his own team’s playoff game.
DuBose, since being fired as Crimson Tide head coach in 2000, has been head coach at two high schools and was Millsaps’ defensive coordinator in 2005. On Saturday, the SCAC Coach of the Year sounded like a man committed to the Majors. He talked about the school making a commitment to winning, and he talked about establishing an “attitude of expectancy” among players, when it comes to success.
“I see things at Millsaps beginning to become more committed,” he said.
There were certainly a bunch of committed fans on hand Saturday, clad in purple-and-white camoflauge pants. They appeared to have driven the 1,000 miles and 15 hours from Jackson, Miss. to Pittsburgh.
DuBose said that’s one thing Division I-A and III have in common.
“What people don’t understand is it’s just as important for the people involved here,” he said. “It’s just as important to the fans and the players.”
DuBose also said he’d become a fan of the Division III playoff system.
“Up until (I got into high school coaching again), I’d been one of those coaches who was in favor of the bowl system, as opposed to the playoff system,” he said. “But I like the playoffs now. I’ve seen the excitement it generates.”
That excitement is present at playoff games themselves, but also during the run up to them. The Majors, who lost their first three games, went 6-0 in-conference to take the SCAC’s automatic bid.
“A team like Millsaps,” DuBose added, “without (the playoff system), we would’ve been done.”
Gagliardi Trophy Watch
My first reaction, upon seeing the 10 finalists for this year’s Gagliardi Trophy, the most prestigious award in Division III was two-fold: One, I’d already heard of eight of the finalists, but I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Two, it might be the most wide-open field I can remember.
In 2004, Wesley safety Rocky Myers was something of a surprise winner. Wooster’s Tony Sutton was probably the most impactful player that season, or at least the most impactful individual who played offense. Myers, whose Wolverines were not a playoff team in 2004, remains the only defensive player to take home the award since it was first given out in 1993.
This year’s field may be even more wide open than that. Even though I nodded my head in approval as I thumbed through the details on the finalists (more here), I later realized who wasn’t in the field: The “best player on Mount Union” slot is unfilled. That alone opens up the field.
The Purple Raiders may not have been able to choose between QB Mike Jorris, RB Nate Kmic, WR Pierre Garcon and DL Justen Stickley. The likely favorite for the award – the only other player who would have been a no-brainer – hurt himself on his last carry in a 286-yard game in Week 7. UW-Whitewater’s Justin Beaver, coming of a 2,400-yard season, hasn’t played since breaking a collarbone against UW-La Crosse. Beaver still leads the Warhawks with 940 rushing yards (149.3 per game).
There were other players – possible all-Americans – who are not on the Gagliardi list, for whatever reason: Occidental QB Andy Collins, Whitworth QB Joel Clark and TE Michael Allan, Mary Hardin-Baylor S Josh Kubiak, Rowan QB Mike Orihel. Just the fact that no one from Mount Union, St. John’s or Rowan is a finalist could be surprising.
But the finalists also prove that the Gagliardi Trophy is truly about the best Division III player, not the biggest name or biggest splash. I haven’t made my vote yet, but I’m confident there are 10 deserving candidates to choose from.
Alma quarterback Josh Brehm
Bethel linebacker Kirby Carr
Case Western Reserve linebacker Tom Brew
Cortland State defensive tackle Adam Haas
Hardin-Simmons quarterback Jordan Neal
North Central quarterback Kam Kniss
Union running back Tom Arcidiacono
UW-Whitewater defensive tackle Ryan Kleppe
Wilmington free safety Chad Otte
Wittenberg running back Tristan Murray
Jostens and the St. John’s J-Club have done a nice job with the award, assembling a selection committee with strong Division III ties: NFL players from our division, former Gagliardi winners, College Hall of Fame players and coaches and respected media.
The other interesting thing is that four regional finalists will be announced Dec. 5. But since Neal is the only South Region player among the 10 finalists, I guess he’ll still be in the mix then.
Season in review
Around the Nation will begin accepting brief suggestions from readers (and players, coaches and school-affliated professionals) for our 2006 Year-in-Review, due out in January 2007. Use last year’s review (linked at the top right-hand corner, posted Jan. 25, 26 and 27) as a guide for which categories we’re looking to fill, or make up your own. ATN cannot promise public credit for your suggestions this year, and we may or may not use them.
But if you think Sul Ross State was the surprise team of ’06 or Luther was the biggest disappointment, let us know (contact information, as always, is below). We’d like to hear your games of the year, plays of the year, players, coaches and things, but most importantly, your off-the-beaten path nominations and suggestions. Things we haven’t covered much or would have no way of knowing about are where you can help most.
Around the Nation is largely interactive, and since its inception has made reader feedback a part of the column. We keep a running board on Post Patterns (under general football) to discuss issues raised in the column, and we’ll share feedback and answer questions there, as well as in the column occasionally. Send correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org, or use our feedback form.
What the eyes can see
Around the Nation is searching for video of playoff teams in order to help us handicap the field. Anyone with access to footage, please send an e-mail to email@example.com for more information. Games against tough opponents, especially other playoff teams, are preferred.
We are always looking for video of anything Division III football-related. That means we’d like to get our hands on documentaries, local cable broadcasts and re-airs, links to archived broadcasts and coaches’ tapes. Arrangements can be made to not share coaches’ footage or to pay fans for shipping and materials.
For print, radio and Internet journalists
Keith McMillan is available, by appointment, on Thursdays and Fridays to talk Division III football. For more information, e-mail Keith.
As always, Around the Nation requests media guides and any other aids in helping us cover your school or conference this season. For more information, contact Keith McMillan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or snail mail to D3football.com, 13055 Carolyn Forest Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.
Links to online media guides are now preferred over mail. In addition, please do not add my e-mail address to your regular release lists, but instead use our news release capabilities to have your information posted on our front page and your team’ s page. For more information on how that works and how we can help each other, contact publisher and editor Pat Coleman at email@example.com. Thank you.