|Nick Palladino and the Mules continue to rewrite the record books.
Photo courtesy Muhlenberg Athletics
When one team dominates a conference the way Mount Union, Johns Hopkins, and Linfield have in recent years, it is easy to overlook the teams battling for second place.
Everybody in the OAC, Centennial, and NWC wants to knock off the big dog on top, but we don't spend much time analyzing these conference races unless there is a major upset. There has been no such upset this year, but each conference has a pretty clear cut number two.
John Carroll opened the season with a non-conference loss at UW-Oshkosh, one of the better non-conference losses a team can have on its record. The Blue Streaks have reeled off seven straight wins, all in OAC play. They won't get their shot at the Purple Raiders until the season finale on Nov. 12. A 9-1 regular season record with just a single-digit loss to Mount Union earned John Carroll an at-large bid in both 2013 and 2014. Last season, the Blue Streaks lost two OAC games and stayed home with an 8-2 record.
This year, the Blue Streaks defense has dominated in OAC play. John Carroll allows just 3.6 yards per play and 11.2 points per game. If they can pull off the upset over the Purple Raiders, the Blue Streaks will be in the playoffs as the OAC's Pool A representative. If they lose, how they lose will become critical to their postseason chances. A blowout, like last year's 36-3 result, will likely not inspire the committee to leapfrog John Carroll over a one-loss team. But, a hard-fought, one-score defeat? That could make John Carroll one of the final teams in. Two losses, both to top five opponents, will give the Blue Streaks a solid case to present.
Muhlenberg's last outright Centennial Conference title came in 2008. Since then, they have been chasing the Blue Jays. The teams shared the title with Ursinus win a three-way tie in 2010. Other than that, it's been all Johns Hopkins for nearly a decade. The Blue Jays have won 35 straight Centennial contests, including a 30-24 win over the Mules on Sept. 24. The Mules led that game at halftime, 24-20.
Muhlenberg has had a record-setting season and just the six-point setback against the perennial conference power gives the Mules a solid resume. They earned an at-large bid two years ago with a 9-1 record, losing only to Johns Hopkins by 16 points. The Mules could be a dangerous and certainly entertaining postseason team, if they can take care of business over the next two weeks (vs. Ursinus, at Moravian). Senior quarterback Nick Palladino is now the Centennial's all-time leader in total offense with 10,783 yards. Nick Savant has rushed for over 100 yards in seven straight games. Nick Lamb is a game-breaking return man and is now the Mules' career receptions leader with 174. They've played in the large shadow of Johns Hopkins, but Muhlenberg remains a contender.
Linfield has won seven straight NWC championships, losing just one conference game over the past eight seasons. They are in position to earn the Pool A bid yet again. Different challengers have risen and fallen during the streak. The latest team to establish itself as "Team B" in the NWC is Whitworth. The Pirates earned a Pool C berth last year, which earned them another meeting with and another loss to the Wildcats. This year, Whitworth opened the season with a heartbreaking 50-49 loss to Central. It was one of the best non-conference games of the opening weekend, with the road team from Iowa winning on a walkoff two-point conversion in overtime. It could also have cost Whitworth a playoff spot. Two fourth quarter touchdowns gave the Pirates a respectable result against Linfield, a 45-31 loss on Oct. 22. Even if the Pirates win out, they will almost certainly finish in second place behind the Wildcats once again.
In another conference, these three programs could be favored to win the league title each year. Instead, they know they have an uphill battle and have to either pull off the big upset or impress against their other nine opponents each season. It's not easy, but the playoff selection committee has rewarded each of these teams with Pool C berths in recent years. Their efforts do not go unnoticed, even if these teams are on the second line of their respective conference standings.
A new champ likely in the HCAC
Much like Mount Union, Johns Hopkins, and Linfield, Franklin has dominated its conference in recent years. But, it looks like there will be a new HCAC representative in the playoffs this season.
Rose-Hulman opened the season with a 14-13 non-conference loss to Illinois College, then was held to 27 points in an 18-point loss to conference foe Mount St. Joseph on Oct. 8. The Fightin' Engineers have been chasing the Grizzlies for a decade. Franklin has won six straight and eight of the past nine HCAC titles.
After the conference's two de facto title games on Saturday, the Pool A bid for 2016 is in Rose-Hulman's pocket. The Fightin' Engineers won at Franklin on Oct. 22, 23-22, then crushed Bluffton in a must-win game yesterday. They still needed some help. If Mount St. Joseph defeated Franklin at home, the Lions would be in the driver's seat. The Grizzlies helped the Fightin' Engineers by scoring the final 35 points of the game to rally for a 56-24 win. That means that with a victory over winless Earlham on Nov. 12 after the bye week, Rose-Hulman will be headed to the playoffs for the first time in program history.
"We talk about it all the time. We have two goals: to win our conference championship and to be the first Rose-Hulman football team to represent this great institution on a national level in the playoffs," said coach Jeff Sokol. "We've been playing football for 124 years, so it's very special to our guys to have this opportunity to earn our way into the playoffs."
A few days ago, I wrote about some impressive turnarounds from five teams who started slow but were in the midst of impressive winning streaks. My apologies to those teams.
Mount St. Joseph's streak was snapped at five and the Lions' playoff hopes were dashed, as Franklin turned an exciting back-and-forth fight into a knockout by dominating the final quarter and a half of play.
Wisconsin Lutheran's offense that had come alive during a three-game win streak was slowed in a 23-19 loss to Benedictine. The Warriors took a 19-8 lead into the fourth quarter. Benedictine receiver Luke Ludolph caught eight passes for 149 yards and a score and rushed for the winning touchdown with 1:38 to play. The Warriors drove into the red zone on their final possession, but Pat Mathieson was sacked on the game's final snap.
Washington and Lee remains atop the ODAC, but is now tied with Randolph-Macon and Shenandoah instead of alone in first place. The Generals offense was stifled by the Yellow Jackets in an 18-10 loss. R-MC's defense held W&L's vaunted rushing attack to just 213 yards on 50 carries. W&L's only touchdown of the game came on an interception return.
Wesley and Albright saved face and kept their winning streaks and playoff hopes intact. The Wolverines dominated the second half in a 37-14 win over Montclair State. Albright extended its winning streak to six with a convincing 33-9 defeat of Widener. The Lions still remain a game behind Stevenson in the MAC race. The Wolverines, winners of five in a row, have a showdown with Salisbury this week. With a win, Wesley will be in control of the NJAC. The Wolverines already defeated Frostburg State, the other team tied with Salisbury and Wesley atop the conference standings, earlier this season.
Here's what to watch for on D3football.com this week.
Later today-- new Top 25 poll released
Monday--Around the Nation podcast featuring Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan. Also, Play of the Week. Submit nominations today if you haven't already.
Tuesday/Wednesday--Around the Region columns
Thursday--Around the Nation column.
Friday--Quick Hits (the new, improved version of Triple Take featuring our panel's predictions and insight into the weekend's games).
Saturday--Game day. You know what Saturdays are for.
We've got great content coming at you all week, every week. Follow along and get to know D-III football beyond just your favorite team.
If you have ideas for an upcoming column or just want to talk some D-III football, get at me at @adamturer on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.