January 7, 2013

Recalling a heck of a 2012

Chris Denton got Mount Union's season off to a running start with two punt returns for touchdowns in the opening week, and the Purple Raiders' punt return unit made itself a big part of the team's playoff success.
Photo by Dan Poel, d3photography.com

A long time ago, I gave up the idea that I could write a year in review that acknowledges every great moment that affects each and every one of you. If there’s one constant across Division III, whether it be in front of a crowd at the Spotlight on Champions banquet the night before the Stagg Bowl or in a one-on-one conversation on the side of a field where nobody else is really paying attention, we all say we wouldn’t trade our experiences for the world.

While we might not exchange for anything those moments on the field with our brothers, or in the stands with our friends, watching our sons, we certainly can share a few with one another. Each one of us lives the experience differently, and so consider this year in review just a glimpse of what it’s like for the 25,000 D-III football players at the 239 schools that participated in 2012. If you can’t find your school’s name in here, find something you can relate to. We have our differences, yet our common threads, going through it all for the love of the game, busting our humps not for the money or the spotlight, but because something inside drives us to do it.

D-III, you might not realize it, but you’ve come a long way. No longer do you need to beg for airtime or acknowledgement – your brothers carry the torch for you in the NFL on Sundays, proving there’s great non-scholarship football. Your standout moments get picked up by the biggest networks, and shared via social media for all to see.

This season was but a chapter in a larger story, but as you look back on it, here – in the form of numbers, highs and lows, still images and video – are some ways to remember it:

By the numbers

5,975

Starting positions in D-III football in any given week, counting the first 22 plus the kicker, punter and longsnapper on 239 teams.

 

100

D3football.com all-Americans, announced on our Stagg Bowl XL pregame show from Salem. It's our 14th season naming an All-American team. In those 14 seasons, we've recognized players from 202 schools.

4

Gagliardi Trophy finalists in Salem. Thomas More’s Zach Autenreib is the NCAA’s career interceptions leader. (His 32 were 11 more than the next-closest D-III player, Ursinus senior Chris Rountree.) Washington & Lee’s Luke Heinsohn ran 35 times for 192 yards and four touchdowns, and then kicked the game-winning field goal in the fourth overtime to beat Hampden-Sydney. Nate Wara quarterbacked the WIAC’s former doormat, UW-Oshkosh, to a 13-1 finish, a national semifinal and finished his career with 11,202 yards of total offense, including 2,321 rushing yards.

Scottie Williams became the first player from Elmhurst, the third from the CCIW the fifth running back and the first black player to take home the Gagliardi Trophy since it was established in 1993. It also continued the evolution of the trophy from simply giving it to the best guy on the best team, to really finding a player who exemplifies the things a D-III player should stand for: athletic prowess, academic success and community service. Williams rushed for 2,046 yards and 22 touchdowns in 12 games, leading Elmhurst to the playoffs for the first time. He finished with 5,202 rushing yards for his career, and another 718 receiving, yet the night of the trophy presentation seemed genuinely humbled by the attention and happy for the Bluejays program. His parents took in the moment, considering themselves blessed. And the next morning, Williams did the most D-III thing possible: Flew back to Elmhurst to take a final exam.

489

Career wins for John Gagliardi, who retired in November, after 60 seasons coaching, including 56 at St. John’s. The win total includes 34 playoff wins in D-III and four in NAIA and four national championships. It does not include his 42 wins from 1954-59 as the Johnnies’ ice hockey coach. There are three dozen more interesting facts about the coach who preferred to be called “John,” but you’ve heard most of those before. The hockey stat was new to me.

14,286

The attendance in Collegeville, Minn. for the annual Tommie-Johnnie game, the largest crowd of the season and biggest since the last time the rivals met at St. John’s and drew 16,421, believed to be a modern-era record. It was one of five D-III games this season that drew more than 10,000. UW-Whitewater did it twice; against UW-Oshkosh, at 12,318, and UW-River Falls, at 11,288. Hampden-Sydney reported 11,048 for its rivalry game against Randolph-Macon even with no ODAC title on the line, and Amherst drew 10,125 in the 127th edition of the oldest rivalry in D-III against Williams.

16,032

Miles traveled, approximately, by sixth-ranked Wesley. As one of the last remaining independents in D-III and a national powerhouse, the Wolverines take games whenever and wherever.

Facing Mary Hardin-Baylor twice was a boost to Wesley's travel mileage and its strength of schedule.
Photo by Andrew Zavoina, d3photography.com

In 2012, that meant trips from Dover, Del. to Texas (East Texas Baptist), Maryland (Salisbury), Louisiana (Louisiana College), California (Menlo) and Alabama (Huntingdon) in the regular season, followed by a rematch of an early-season home game at UMHB in the third round of the playoffs.The Wolverines’ season started and ended in Texas, but in between featured games in six states, plus teams from Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Massachusetts and New York coming to Delaware. It also featured five round-trips of longer than 1,700 miles, with Menlo totaling nearly 6,000, making the Wolverines the rare D-III frequent flyer. Next year Wesley is expected to play three playoff-caliber teams within 75 miles of campus, yet still have Texas, Alabama, California and North Carolina teams on the schedule.

.779

Winning percentage of Wesley’s opponents, No. 1 in the nation. Next-best was Linfield, at .708, and St. Thomas, at .700, the only three teams at .700 or higher. The best schedule faced by a non-playoff team was Buffalo State, .627 and eighth overall.

90-0

The score of Widener’s win over Wilkes on Sept. 22. The Pride had 681 yards of offense, including 214 rushing, and scored touchdowns on 12 of 15 possessions, including all seven in the second half. Chris Haupt hit Alec Wrieth with a 62-yard pass to go up 62-0 with seven minutes left in the third quarter, and a two-point conversion run failed. The Pride set a school record for points and handed Wilkes its worst loss, and it was the nation’s highest scoring output and largest margin of victory this season. But by far the most bizarre number from the game is this: Wilkes, which beat Widener 35-27 in 2011, was no struggling first-year program (fellow MAC member and startup Misericordia lost all 10 games by at least 28, and seven by 38 or more). The Colonels finished 5-5, including four wins after the 90-point loss, a credit to longtime coach Frank Sheptock. Weeks later, Widener’s season-ending 55-point loss at Mount Union gave it a taste of what a serious blowout feels like.

70-65

The score of a Sul Ross State-Texas Lutheran game on Oct. 13, featuring loads of outlandish stats, including the fact that the Bulldogs scored 35 fourth-quarter points and lost. The 135 combined points was three short of the record, set in a 70-68 Brockport State-Hartwick game in 2008. Across the D-III, teams hit the 50-point mark 186 times in 2012. They went over 60 points 59 times. They even crossed the 70-point barrier 20 times. So scoring a lot was routine. But in no place was it more par for the course than in the ASC, where shootouts for the ages were a weekly occurrence. The Lobos' 70-65 win, in which Dominique Carson accounted for eight touchdowns, might have been the apex, but yardage-wise, not even it could hold a candle to this next ASC shootout.

1,714

Yards gained by both teams in Hardin-Simmons' 86-42 win over Sul Ross State on Oct. 27. The total yardage mark was one of 23 records broken on the day. Hardin-Simmons' 914 yards was another all-divisions record. The previous records of 1,640 for all divisions (San Jose State/Nevada, 2001) and 1,430 for D-III (Eureka/Crown, 2009) fell. What's more is Sul Ross put up their 800 yards with Carson and No. 1 receiver Cordrick Mobley injured and on the sideline for this one.

200th

East Texas Baptist’s national ranking, of 239, in scoring defense. They were third in the American Southwest Conference, which during 2012 also featured a 65-58 double-overtime Hardin-Simmons win at TLU. Six of the conference's teams participated in a game in which one scored at least 68.

6.02

Yards per play in the ASC, a national best. Only four conferences even averaged five and a half yards per play (SCIAC, 5.82; MIAC, 5.66; NWC, 5.61). ASC teams also completed a national-best 60 percent of all passes, part of the reason Pat Coleman began referring to it as the “Little 12.”

736

Speaking of our site’s founder and publisher, he’s also perhaps the luckiest man in small-college football. At least if we’re judging by the ability to show up to a game and have amazing things happen. While making a four-game road trip on opening weekend, mostly because start times and geography allowed him to, he happened to be present for Eureka’s Sam Durley breaking the all-division single-game passing yardage mark. (Here’s his D3Report from the game). On top of the record, Durley needed every last yard, as his Red Devils eked out a 62-56 win against the Prairie Fire. Eureka got 13 catches in that game from Jordan Kindred, a basketball star who was playing his first game of organized football. Yeah, no matter what the level of play, that was an awesome all-around occurrence.

1 vs. 2

The ranking of Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor when they met in the semifinals, the first time since 2005 that the Stagg Bowl didn’t feature the top two teams in the D3football.com poll. The game delivered, however, as Mount Union rallied from down 28-14 in the fourth quarter to go ahead 42-35 on Jake Simon’s touchdown run with five seconds left. Fans in Alliance, who aren’t used to nail-biters, stormed the field after the win, a sign of respect for the challenge the Crusaders provided.

7-6

The score of Buffalo State’s stunning non-conference win at then-defending champion UW-Whitewater on Sept. 15. In hindsight, during what was a three-loss season for the Warhawks, the Bengals’ win isn’t quite as much of a shock. But at the time, it snapped a 46-game UW-W win streak, and it happened with Buffalo State trailing 6-0 until the final minute. The Bengals converted a double-hook-and-ladder on the game-winning drive, spawning a YouTube hit. Both Around the Region and Around the Nation featured Buffalo State that week.

15-14
24-23

It was the year of the two-point conversion, and no team lived and died by it like Bethel. Their loss-turned-last-second-win against Concordia-Moorhead made it a homecoming to remember. After the Royals last-ditch play ended with a sack-strip and Cobbers return for a touchdown, Concordia-Moorhead players stormed the field during the play. That gave Bethel one more play, on which they scored the 9-yard tying touchdown, and then an untimed down on which they ran a successful two-point conversion play. Six weeks later, in the playoffs, Concordia-Chicago scored with 18 seconds left and ran a two-point play to win. It failed, Bethel moved on to the second round, and coach Lonnie Pries left the Cougars' program a few days after going for two. (Hat tip to Augsburg SID Don Stoner, who pointed out that the week before the Bethel/Concordia-Moorhead game, the Royals survived an Augsburg two-point conversion attempt with 1:46 left in a 21-20 win). See photos of the Royals-Cobbers game below.

No. 9

Lowest D3football.com poll ranking of the eight teams that advanced to the national quarterfinals. With No. 8 Cal Lutheran slated to play No. 3 Linfield in the second round if it had advanced, this was the best possible result.

Eric Rogers and Cal Lutheran were the only team in the top nine eliminated before the national semifinals.
Photo by Joe Bergman, d3phtography.com

9 of 13

Teams in the top half of the preseason poll that ended up in the playoffs: No. 2 Mount Union, No. 3 Wesley, No. 4 UMHB, No. 5 Linfield, No. 6 North Central, No. 7 Salisbury, No. 8 St. Thomas, No. 12 Cal Lutheran, No. 13 Franklin.

3 of 12

Teams in the bottom half of the preseason poll that ended up in the playoffs: No. 17 Bethel, No. 22 Hobart, No. 25 Widener.

8 of 27

Playoff-eligible teams also receiving votes in the initial poll that made the field of 32.

 

11

Teams, including Rowan, Elmhurst and Pacific Lutheran, that got no preseason votes, but made the playoffs. The three mentioned each finished in the top 25.

11

Sacks by Susquehanna against Moravian on Oct. 15, the only time one team got to the other’s quarterback that many times in 2012. Muskingum (vs. Defiance) and Mount Union (vs. Marietta) each had 10-sack games.

2,124

Yardage total in 10 games of Mount St. Joseph’s James Clay, who was the only back in the country to average more than 200 rushing yards per game. Gagliardi Trophy winner Scottie Williams also went over 2,000 rushing yards, and faced the CCIW and playoff teams along the way, in 12 games.

23

Consecutive losses for Tufts, the longest current streak, including the 15 teams who went winless in 2012. The Jumbos only play eight games a season, which makes their streak longest by calendar weeks (last win vs. Hamilton, Sept. 25, 2010) as well as games.

During the season, the seven teams surrounding Tufts for the longest skids each won a game. On Sept. 15, Thiel and Rockford broke 24- and 23-game losing streaks. Thiel’s game-winning play put it in the Play of the Week spotlight. On Oct. 6, Knox ended a 19-game losing streak. On Oct. 13, Nichols broke a 17-game run of losses. On Oct. 20, Wilmington (33 games, since Oct. 2009) and Earlham (26 games, since the beginning of  2010) ended long streaks, and on Oct. 27, Western Connecticut beat Montclair State in overtime to snap their 28-game slide.

89

Consecutive conference losses for North Park after the Vikings’ 12th consecutive 0-7 mark in CCIW play. Coach Scott Pethel was let go after going 10-60 in seven seasons. North Park’s last conference win came at Elmhurst – which is now a 10-2 playoff team featuring the Gagliardi Trophy winner – on Oct. 7, 2000.

155

Points scored by Grinnell in its nine MWC games. That’s just a shade more than the 138 Grinnell basketball player Jack Taylor scored in a November game. The Pioneers football team went 2-7 in the MWC, and 2-8 overall, scoring 16.9 points a game.

Fifth

The spot Indiapolis Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman, the 2007 D3football.com defensive player of the year with Mary Hardin-Baylor, finished in tackles in the NFL, with 145. Just a few behind, at 139, was the Redskins' London Fletcher, who probably would have been the 1999 defensive player of the year had we awarded one back then.

Photos of the year

Our friends at d3photography.com culled some of the images they are most proud of. Mouse over each one for a caption, or for an arrow to help move the slideshow back and forth:


D3football.com Around the Nation: Best of 2012 - Images by d3photography.com

Highs and lows to remember

#rip5

The unexpected death of Washington & Jefferson running back Tim McNerney was shocking as much for what happened as for who it happened to and when. Folks in the W&J community might never be the same, but they helped each other heal and let the rest of D-III know who Tim was with the Twitter hashtag #rip5. In the end, the Presidents felt they honored McNerney by winning the PAC title and presenting the trophy to his family. We can only guess that the pain doesn’t go away, but the community support and the championship helped ease it.

#LiDarraling

This LiDarral Bailey touchdown pass in UMHB's playoff game against Wesley took on a life of its own.
Photo by Andrew Zavoina, d3photography.com

The instant I saw LiDarral Bailey’s underhanded touchdown pass while being sacked against Wesley, I knew it was an extraordinary play that would take on a life of its own. No-brainer for D3football.com Play of the Week. It went viral via Yahoo and other outlets. But when folks from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor turned LiDarraling into a meme, with a Facebook collection of deans, babies, cats, athletes, food service employees and students going about their daily business in Bailey’s touchdown-throwing pose, it was a never-before-seen occurrence. LiDarraling showed up on tumblr, on instagram and anywhere else, with some creativity and new-fashioned school spirit.

Hurricane Sandy

For much of D-III, the superstorm that smashed the East Coast as the end of October was either much ado about very little, or an event that looked pretty horrible on TV. But for the football teams based in North Jersey and New York City -- William Paterson, Kean, Montclair State, FDU-Florham, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and SUNY-Maritime -- it hit home. Literally. Flooding, wind damage and loss of power affected campsues, which were evacuated as games were canceled. ATN talked to the schools as they began recovery, and with gas being rationed, chartering buses for games seemed like a pretty low priority. Players and coaches who had family or homes on the Jersey Shore were more concerned about who and what survived. When students from SUNY-Maritime were shown knee-deep in floodwaters walking boats down the streets of Hoboken, it made a memory much different than football would have. Games and classes eventually resumed, and things were back to normal, yet we imagine many were never the same.

Rivalry-game finishes for the ages

The finishes in the Cortaca Jug and Dutchman Shoes games this season were ones to remember, coming down to a late Cortland stop and a Union touchdown on fourth-and-16 in overtime. Rather than type up some words, let these videos do them justice:

Cortaca Jug

Dutchman Shoes

Coaches' personalities

The Stagg Bowl is undoubtedly about the game itself, and the players who have won four playoff games and earned the right to be there. But it's also a celebration of all that is going right with two of the best programs in D-III, and this season, that started at the top.

Larry Kehres is the most successful college football coach of all time by two important metrics -- championships and winning percentage. Stoic would be a good way to describe his public image, although he's got a fiery side, usually seen behind closed doors. He's also got a lighter side, but those that don't spend a lot of time around him don't always get to see it. This year's group of seniors, however, brought it out. In what was perhaps Kehres's best coaching job since rallying the 2005 team from a midseason loss to the title, he had his finger on the pulse of a senior-dominated team. He trusted in them, and loosened up, as Adam Turer wrote on Stagg Bowl week. The Purple Raiders had lost three consecutive games in Salem. The senior class was on the verge of being the first since 1992 to graduate without a championship. Much of the coaching staff had turned over. A sophomore quarterback was at the helm. And instead of being overbearing given all those circumstances, Kehres loosened up and enjoyed the ride.

Across the field, national observers were introduced to Glenn Caruso, the St. Thomas coach who is comfortable singing, crying or getting in the face of an official. He wears his passion on his sleeve, and players respond to it. More than one of the Tommies' stars said they picked UST because of Caruso, when the program was building and there was no reason to believe a Stagg Bowl would come so soon. Not everyone liked Caruso's use of a late timeout in Salem when the game was out of reach, when he huddled his entire team for a talk. But to hear his men say they love each other, to refer to their teammates as family members, and to listen to coaches and parents who have no connection to St. Thomas praise the man -- He's doing something right.

Mount Union’s punt return unit

Here’s a reason, among the many, that the Purple Raiders win championships. They pay attention in special teams meetings, apparently, and aren’t afraid to use their best players in the third phase of the game.

Nick Driskill, right, and the punt block unit played a big role in winning the Purple Raiders a national championship.
Photo by Dan Poel, d3photography.com

Not only did Mount Union feature an outstanding defense this season that forced teams to punt over and over, but they made teams pay when they did. Chris Denton returned five punts for touchdowns, including two in the season opener against Franklin and an 80-yarder five minutes into the playoff opener against Christopher Newport. Then in the third round of the postseason, Mount Union in the second quarter alone turned three Widener punts into touchdowns. All-American safety Nick Driskill blocked one that led to a 28-yard touchdown drive, Later in the quarter, after punter James McFadden got a 58-yarder off, Hank Spencer and Shawn Riley tackled McFadden to set up a 12-yard scoring drive. Then three plays later, Driskill blocked a punt and chased it down in the end zone himself for a TD and a 37-3 halftime lead. In the semifinals, Spencer blocked a Mary Hardin-Baylor punt and Nyejel Thomas recovered for the tying touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, and in the Stagg Bowl, Charles Dieuseul’s block and rumble to the end zone gave Mount Union a 14-0 lead against St. Thomas. In the playoffs alone, the punt return unit’s success led directly to six touchdowns.

UW-Oshkosh’s playoff comebacks

They weren’t ups for St. Scholastica, Bethel or Linfield, and they couldn’t rally in the semifinals against St. Thomas, but for fans of the Titans, falling behind 10-0, 14-0 and 21-6 in the first three rounds of the playoffs made the wins that much sweeter. Sure, the Oshkosh area ran out of heart medicine shortly after the season, but the memory of the comebacks – especially the overtime winner at Linfield, in which the online broadcast was reduced to one end-zone angle, field-level camera – makes up for the anxiety.

Media shoutouts

Nobody understands Division III like those who live it. Often, the outsiders’ acknowledgements are dismissive, pithy or made in passing. Occasionally though, a writer or media outlet who doesn’t specialize in D-III really sinks their teeth into a subject and delivers outstanding results. Here are a few of ATN’s hat-tips to those who took the time to get to know us in 2012:

ESPN’s E:60 featured Bluffton’s Tim Berta. Primarily a baseball story, it deserves mention anyway, because it had me in tears by the end. Grantland wrote a knowledgeable feature on Kehres, the New York Times wrote a solid takeout on Glenn Caruso before the Stagg Bowl, and John Gagliardi’s retirement brought out those who know D-III and those who barely did.

And although it doesn't nearly qualify as an outsider-written piece, TV Fury's Appreciation of Mount Union's dominance was especially well done, considering it was written by a full-blooded Johnnie.

Picks of the year

If you subcribed to our preseason edition, Kickoff '12, you saw the predictions we made for the season. One of the ATN YIR annual traditions is to look back at those prognostications and see how wrong they were. Of course, we get a few right every now and again.

Respect to Joel Badzinski for foreseeing UW-Oshkosh's playoff run. I get a pat on the back for calling Elmhurst (and, in the Beyond the top 25 article, Heidelberg) to make the playoffs. Ryan Tipps gets the same for his pick of Adrian. Jason Bailey was the first to see an all-American award in Wheaton wide receiver Mark Hiben's future (Hiben also has one of the plays of the week in the video below).

Pat Coleman was the only one to correctly forecast Mount Union as the national champion, but he thought it would come against UW-Whitewater. The most impressive pick, however, might be that of all the players in D-III, Badzinski correctly predicted both the offensive and defensive players of the year -- Nate Wara of UW-Oshkosh and Javicz Jones of UMHB -- in a year when it was far from a no-brainer.

Plays of the Year

The D3football.com plays of the week, compiled into a single highlight reel. Enjoy:

Epilogue

Each season has its own arc, its own personality. From each of our individual perches, we viewed the year differently. When you step back and consider the grand scope of it all, how D-III lets so many students who are serious about at least two crafts – their football and their academics – live out their dreams, it’s hard to do anything but appreciate it.

I’ve always loved that D-III plays 11 weeks and five weeks of playoffs, and wraps up in time for players and coaches to be home for Christmas or other December celebrations. While bowl season is getting ramped up, we’re home, congratulating our champion, awaiting the results of final exams and looking forward to a new season.

In the interest of including all multimedia, Pat and I and the Stagg Bowl crew wrapped up the season from Salem on our final podcast back in December. Linked here if you missed it.

This offseason, I’ll be around the front page and Daily Dose more often, writing about draft prospects and spring happenings. So be sure to stop back in during the week, and follow us on Twitter @d3football and @D3Keith, among others, to stay informed.

What did we miss?

Join us on the Daily Dose beginning on Thursday, Jan. 10 for a chance to nominate players, moments and memories that weren't included above.

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Keith McMillan

Keith McMilllan, who has been a columnist for D3football.com since 2000, has provided color commentary on D3football.com's national broadcasts of the Stagg Bowls. He played at Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for four years and covered it for two more.

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