November 24, 2013

Look who stole the show in Round 1

Peter DiMilia had a sack and two forced fumbles Saturday at John Carroll.
St. John Fisher athletics photo

Four Saturdays from now, we'll be a celebrating a new -- or old -- champion. The first round of the 2013 playoffs belonged to a completely different subset of Division III teams, and they made it an exhilarating day.

Realistically, six teams, give or take, have a chance to win it all. The teams that won Saturday's closest games and biggest upsets probably aren't among them, but now is their turn to shine. The matchups that sparked the most complaints gave us the best finishes -- two touchdowns in the final minute at Johns Hopkins, and another with 18 seconds left at Franklin. Hampden-Sydney and Maryville combined for 62 points in the first half, then just one score each in the second. It was a tale of two halves at Ithaca (17-0 after the break) and St. John Fisher (18-3 at John Carroll) as well. Two Pool C teams (UW-Platteville and St. John Fisher) advanced, as did a Pool B (Wesley). Three road teams (Wesley, SJF and Wartburg) won.

The playoffs have a cruel side as well, the way they bring outstanding seasons to painful endings. Two weeks ago, John Carroll and Gallaudet were each 9-0 and the toast of D-III. Today, they're done. The Blue Streaks gave up 33 points in the first nine weeks, and 67 in eight days (although one of St. John Fisher's touchdowns was an interception return). Pacific Lutheran finished a season in which its only losses were against Linfield. The Lutes have won every one of their past 18 games except the four played against the national power a few hours south.

For the second time in three seasons, Illinois Wesleyan stumbled in a home playoff game in which it was considered the favorite. For the second consecutive season, Framingham State was on the verge of a first-round playoff win and lost by a hair. Johns Hopkins was 50 seconds away from 11-0, and then poof, in five plays and 31 seconds of game action, the season goes up in smoke.

The fact that so much is at stake makes winning all that much sweeter. Sixteen teams kept the dream alive, and 16 wonder what could have been. Them's the breaks, I suppose. But darned if they aren't tough breaks.

Here are my snap judgments for Round 1 of the playoffs:

Biggest surprise
Wartburg. Nobody picked them in Triple Take, and I was the only one to mention the Knights in 'Surprises and disappointments.' I wrote "if any road team has a chance in Round 1, it's the Knights," and filed them under "surprises," but I didn't see 41-7 coming. And there was nothing fluky about it; it was total domination. The Knights outrushed the Titans 274 to minus-5 and scored on drives of 8, 12, 12, 7 and 9 plays, plus a fumble recovery.

Biggest flop
Illinois Wesleyan, meantime, is likely to drop from No. 14 clear out of the top 25, and delivered the least compared to expectations. Other teams lost by worse scores, but only two teams that went 9-1 in power conferences lost on Saturday. John Carroll was the other, and Mark Myers' four interceptions probably qualified for the worst day from a player we were thinking would emerge as a playoff star.

Biggest disparity between first and second-round competition
That'd be North Central and UW-Platteville, who face each other in the best game of Round 2 after demolishing the MIAA and NACC champs 63-7 and 54-20 in Round 1. The Cardinals were ranked fourth in the Week 11 top 25, and the Pioneers No. 7, the only matchup of top 10 teams this early in the tournament.

Biggest change of opinion because of Round 1
Wittenberg. Maybe we get lulled to sleep by those wins over Hiram, Kenyon and Allegheny, but the Tigers blew Lebanon Valley out of the water from the first snap on Saturday. Desi Kirkman alone had touchdowns of 35, 65, 90 and 41 yards in the 38-3 first half of a 59-17 win. Coupled with Mount Union's somewhat ho-hum 34-20 win over Washington & Jefferson, and suddenly this battle for Ohio -- one we've been clamoring for as the non-conference opener for years -- looks a lot more intriguing.

Best defense
Rowan. The Profs pitched the only shutout of Round 1, although North Central essentially did it to Albion, giving up a score with 2:34 left and a 63-point lead, and UW-Whitewater, Hobart and Mary Hardin-Baylor each held opponents to a single score. But none of those teams are as offensively challenged as the Profs, who needed a big day from the defense to advance. They got an interception return for a score in the first quarter from Darren Dungee, and held Endicott to 113 yards, six first downs and 1 of 14 on third and fourth downs.

Best job proving it belonged
St. John Fisher. Observers like to identify the probable last teams in in Pools B and C, and point out who would have done better if a different last team got in. Well, nobody's questioning the Cardinals' credentials after they went to Cleveland and knocked the No. 9 team in the country out in Round 1. Wash. U., the last B team in, made a decent case for itself too, although it couldn't protect a 10-7 lead with five minutes left, and finished 2 of 17 on third downs. The Bears held high-powered Franklin to a lower score than Mount Union did in Week 1, and allowed Franklin just 3.3 yards per play in 90 plays.

Most impressive in defeat
Washington & Jefferson and Johns Hopkins. I realize this is faint praise, but it speaks to Mount Union's dominance that we're impressed when the Presidents trail just 21-13 for most of the second quarter. Hopkins, with a different matchup, probably would have won. We sorta knew that going in, and they nearly delivered against one of the most successful programs of the past 10 years (even though it's a less-powerful iteration of it, it's something).
 
Least interesting games
UW-Whitewater & Mary Hardin-Baylor. The outcomes were forgone conclusions, and St. Norbert more than Redlands actually made it interesting for a while. But the 31-7 and 35-7 wins were ones that were tough to check in on while so many other great games were underway, because they weren't close enough to be surprises, and there weren't enough fireworks to catch our attention otherwise.

Wide receivers gone wild
Holton Walker, Hampden-Sydney, 16 catches, 268 yards, 3 TDs
Desi Kirkman, Wittenberg, 5 catches, 188 yards, 4 TDs (plus the 90-yard punt return TD)
Steve Kodoussou, Wesley, 11 catches, 132 yards, 3 TDs
Alex Barrofio, Washington & Jefferson, 12 catches, 131 yards, 3 TDs
Sherman Wilkinson, Mount Union, 7 catches, 130 yards, 3 TDs
Kyle Linville, Franklin, 14 catches, 114 yards, TD
Pacific Lutheran tight end Lucas Sontra had four catches for 100 yards and three TDs as well.

No wide receivers gone wild
Gallaudet did not complete a pass. BJ Flores got 38 of the Bison's 66 rushing attempts though.

Best passing
Bethel's Erik Peterson was 25 of 27 for 300 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Which is probably tough to do in practice.

Worst passing offense in a win
Rowan passed for 38 yards, on 13 attempts. But the Profs rushed for 346

Worst rushing offense in a win
Ithaca eked it out against Framingham State while rushing for six yards.

Carrying the load
With the season on the line, teams weren't afraid to hand it their best back:
Withler Marcelin, Rowan, 43 carries, 223 yards, TD
BJ Flores, Gallaudet, 38 carries, 176 yards, TD
Brandon Domeyer, Wartburg, 34 carries, 161 yards, 3 TDs
Bradley (BJ) Mitchell, Mount Union, 31 carries, 181 yards, TD
Melikke Van Alstyne, Framingham State, 29 carries, 120 yards, TD
Travis Felder, Maryville, 28 carries, 167 yards, 3 TDs
 
Most eye-popping final number
UW-Platteville finished with 679 yards of total offense.
 
Best job checking off all the defensive boxes
North Central defensive end Alex Tripp had eight tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and fumble recovery, a half sack and half tackle for loss, and a QB hurry. What, no pass break-up?
Worst injury
Hobart losing QB Patrick Conlan changes the game going forward if it's long-term. Kyle Bayly went 2 for 8 in relief, but Hobart likely dialed back their passing game while cruising to a 34-7 win.

Best return from injury
UW-Whitewater RB Ryan Givens, who had played but hadn't had more than three carries since a Sept. 28 game against Waldorf, rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.

Most wasteful use of public facility
Bethel. Ah, we're just messing with the Royals. That 70-13 win over St. Scholastica in Minneapolis's dome was at least against another in-state school. Hey, if you have access to a dome, you might as well use it.

Best snow
Bethel looked pretty smart for avoiding the kind of weather that hit a stretch of the country from Mount Union to the ECAC Bowl game in Alfred. On Twitter, sort by the tag #d3fbpics for some snow shots.
 
Worst podcasting
This goes to me. Although I had written "Darren Dungee" above before we recorded, the same memory bank that calls up random facts from long-lost D-III seasons called up "Dustin Deegan" while we were on. My bad. Of course Pat corrected it in real time, and will leave it in because it makes the podcast much funnier. I'm a little embarrassed, but feel better now that I've come clean.

Obligatory "Hey, there were ECAC bowls" item
Muhlenberg scored with 24 seconds left but missed a two-point conversion in a 21-19 loss to Salisbury in one of the six bowls put on for Eastern teams.
 
Just go ahead and join the WIAC already
UW-Platteville in Round 2 will be North Central's fourth game against a WIAC team, after it opened against La Crosse, Stout and Stevens Point. A fifth is possible if the Cardinals advance to face UW-Whitewater in the Stagg Bowl

Round 2 matchup that should be a regular season game
Wittenberg at Mount Union. The most storied programs in Ohio D-III history should meet more often than they do. Maybe Wittenberg doesn't want to take an L each season, or would rather play a like institution, but it's not like FCS Butler helps with either of those.

Given what we learned in Round 1, most likely to win it all
I can honestly say we don't really know, and that in itself is a joy. Mount Union and UW-Whitewater won by solid final margins. But Warhawks coach Lance Leipold admitted to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel it wasn't sharp against St. Norbert, and they had their hands full. We probably shouldn't read too much into the Purple Raiders' numbers because theirs became a snow game, but they gave up three TD passes to a W&J quarterback making his second career start. Mary Hardin-Baylor seemed like it did enough to win, running the ball well against Redlands. The scores that overwhelmed came from North Central, Bethel and UW-Platteville, who all have to go through each other (and Wartburg, who also overwhelmed). Besides, you can't take much away from first-round blowouts when the level of competition is going to increase exponentially going foward. Linfield might have been the most impressive team in Saturday, given that it had to beat the No. 13 team in the country in Round 1 while everyone else played unranked underdogs. The Wildcats' 42-21 victory was decisive, but it wasn't enough to ordain them clear favorites from here. And that sense of uncertainty will give the next four weeks suspense and meaning that we haven't always had.
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