|Heath Haden, top, and Seth Peters.
Centre athletics photo; d3photography.com file photo by Joe Fusco
DANVILLE, Ky. -- It’s fun to see a first-team all-conference quarterback command a high-powered offense on the field. It’s even more fun to watch two of them in the same game.
That was the case Saturday, when Hendrix traveled to Kentucky to play defending conference champion Centre. The Warriors’ Seth Peters is the SAA’s reigning offensive player of the year, while the Colonels’ fifth-year senior, Heath Haden, was the first-team All-SAA quarterback in 2013.
There was no letdown. Despite the threat of rain all week and a potential for game day downpours, the worst of the weather held off.
The result was a 51-48 shootout that seemed from the first quarter it was going to come down to whoever had the ball last. The teams combined for 34 points in the first 15 minutes alone, and there seemed to be no stopping things.
“I definitely expected a shootout from two really good offenses,” said Peters, a junior. “Centre and Hendrix have been at the top of the conference the past three years now. I expected us to have to go out there and win a shootout, and that’s what happened.”
Hendrix is in just its third season since restarting its football program, and from the outset, Centre and Hendrix have had to conference’s two most potent offenses. This season, Hendrix is 18th in the nation statistically; Centre is 28th.
“Our offense played well, but in a game like this when the other offense is also playing well, you don’t have a lot of room for mistakes,” said Haden, who earned a medical redshirt during his freshman season. “One three-and-out, in most games you can get away with that, and it’s not a big deal. But in a game like this, if you have a missed throw here, or a missed block or a drop, those things can come back to bite you.”
Most first-team all-conference quarterbacks are juniors or seniors; last season, of the 29 conferences across the country, only three gave that honor to a sophomore. So Peters was unique.
He’s excelling this season, too. Factoring in Saturday’s 262-yard passing effort, Peters averages 253 yards a game. That’s good enough for Top 50 nationally. The Warriors are off to a 3-1 start.
Centre, on the other hand, is now 3-2, a potentially significant slip off of last season. Haden helped lead his team to an undefeated regular season in 2014 before being knocked out of the playoffs in Round 1 by John Carroll.
The skill of each quarterback -- and, for that matter, each offense -- is rooted in the supporting casts.
Both teams have offensive lines that give their signal-callers time to make decisions and find open receivers. In many cases, the acrobatic wide receivers have a couple of inches on their defenders. And the run games present a potent dilemma for defenders to have to manage.
“We’ve had a very strong run game all year, so that’s something that we wanted to get going,” Haden said. “Getting some pass plays off of our run has always been one of our things.”
Peters said the coaches looked more toward a run attack in anticipation of soggy weather, and though the rains held off, the team decided to stick with it. That helped drive Hendrix running back Dayton Winn into the driver’s seat en route to a school-record-setting 283-yard day, accented by five touchdowns.
“I thought we played a good day offensively,” Haden said, “but they had a great day offensively, so hats off to them.”
The senior said that a lot of teams probably felt like they missed an opportunity last season to ruin Centre’s undefeated run. Opponents go after the defending conference champs -- it’s an unavoidable bulls-eye.
Because of that, “We felt like we were going to get everybody’s best shot,” Haden said.
While both players are living in the present and searching for success in 2015, there’s a larger legacy that they will be attached to at their respective institutions.
Haden came into the season third on Centre’s all-time passing list and seems likely to break that mark, along with the school record for passing touchdowns. He said he’s blessed to be at a place like this, where the coaching staff is so hands-on and even his backup quarterbacks are supportive. Their talent forces him to avoid becoming complacent.
“The skill level I have behind me at quarterback has been one of the biggest compliments to me, the fact that I’m playing ahead of these guys,” he said.
The team captain spends his offseason in the limelight as a regular in Centre’s theater program. He’s a double major in dramatic arts and politics, but his world right now revolved around football.
“This season is my last chance to play football. I’m just enjoying playing the game,” he said.
Peters still has one more year after this, and only three players at Hendrix are seniors. The quarterback, a math major with the hopes of going to medical school, has been with the program from the start and has been integral to building it to its current success.
“It was not easy,” he said. “Mostly we can attribute the growth to the coaches. From Day 1, they said even though we’re starting football, we’re not going to lay down for people. We’re going to be competitive. We’re going to build a dynasty here and not use our age as an excuse. …
“We came out of the box firing and expected to win 10 games every season,” he said.
Neither Peters nor Haden are boisterous leaders of their teams; instead, they build respect and encourage teammates through example. They are aware of the notion that hypocrisy kills leadership.
Their hard work and success in all aspects of the game show that they certainly are no hypocrites. It’s not about just them. They have a lot of offensive assets at the ready.
“That’s how you have a great offense,” Haden said. “You can’t just have a guy here, or a guy there. You have to have all those things come together. We have a good offensive line, good receivers. It’s nice to have those kinds of weapons around you. It helps take some of the pressure off.”
I was going to wait until Sunday to revisit the topic of the various tiers in the D3football.com Top 25 poll, but the more time that passed, the more I couldn’t let it go.
I’ve gotten emails and a couple of tweets in the past week or so asking why teams aren’t moving up the poll more, why a two-loss team is listed ahead of so many undefeateds and where can we group some teams. I’ve also been asked which teams are on my bubble for the Top 25 poll.
While my ballot doesn’t align neatly with the overall poll, there are some segments that stand out as significant.
From the preseason through now to Week 5, the same five teams -- UW-Whitewater, Mount Union, Linfield, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Wesley -- have nestled into the top spots. There’s a reason for this: Going back a decade, these are the teams that most consistently finish a season very near the top. Deep playoff runs are part of the culture at these schools. Players on these teams arrive on campus expecting to be surrounded by Division III’s best athletes, to get top-tier coaching and to receive the full backing of the administration.
Often, especially in the postseason, when one of these teams loses, it’s to another team on this list. Last season, I was shaky on crowning Linfield as one of D-III’s elite (the midseason loss to Willamette didn’t help, either). But the Wildcats share the postseason success of the others, making their way to the national semifinals last season and several respectable showings in prior years.
These are the top-shelf teams -- the current generation’s Division III elite. They’re not invincible, but a win against any of them means that their opponent brought their “A” game, read the right thing in their morning horoscope and banked some good karma ahead of game day.
In the overall poll, Wartburg leads off the next pack at No. 6. The cutoff here, in my opinion, is after No. 12 UW-Platteville. The Pioneers’ win over North Central early in the season and close matchup against Whitewater last week earn them inclusion in this second tier, despite the fact that they’re the only team with loss in either of these groups.
No. 8 Wabash, No. 9 St. Thomas and No. 11 Thomas More have quality wins over ranked teams that prove their status. No. 7 Wheaton hasn’t logged that kind of win yet, but we haven’t seen anything to give us pause about their performance this year. No. 10 Johns Hopkins is in the same boat as Wheaton, having won all of their games comfortably, but I’m waiting for them to be tested later in the season against currently undefeated Gettysburg and against Franklin and Marshall.
What’s important to understand is that barring something cataclysmic, there’s not going to be much movement throughout the regular season from these two top tiers. Last week, I moved Wabash up a spot and dropped Wartburg below (the Knights haven’t been as dominant as we’ve seen in the past), but subtle shifts by one voter likely won’t resonate into the positions on the overall poll.
With 247 teams this season playing Division III football, be happy with being in the Top 12 -- or even the Top 25. The overall poll represents the top 10 percent in the nation as chosen by an objective group of journalists, SIDs and coaches.
The next dropoff comes at No. 13, where St. John’s currently resides. The teams starting here are ones that may have a conference loss or may have some particularly tough roads still ahead. While all teams before this spot are projected conference title winners (no guarantees, of course), the teams from No. 13 on down are more in hazier circumstances. This group extends through No. 20 Wittenberg.
What is worth watching from this group are the Pool C opportunities, as well as how these teams play against their tougher competition. Even if a team in this third tier plays someone higher up, the thought process is that it wouldn’t be a blowout eight times out of 10. There might be lopsided games here and there, but this middle pack should be skilled enough to keep teams not named UW-Whitewater or Mount Union within reach on the scoreboard.
The final shelf of the Top 25 starts then with John Carroll. The teams in the final five spots are going to be the most in flux, and can drop off if a team receiving votes has a particularly strong day or some other cage-rattling occurs. As an example, losses forced teams Nos. 19, 20 and 23 off of last week’s poll. They are clearly the most vulnerable, especially with so many undefeated teams still unranked (15, not including the NESCAC teams, who have played just two games).
My ballot certainly differs somewhat from the current lineup (I have Ithaca, Albright, Maryville and Whitworth on my list). Do you see the Top 25 tiers differently than I do? Let’s discuss this in the comments below.
I’ll spend part of next week revealing who my hypothetical 26 through 35 spots would go to, if this poll went deeper than 25.