October 23, 2012

Former Guardsman at Witt knows how to be a defender

More news about: Wittenberg
Jon Daniels already has 40 tackles this season, with three more games to go. And Wittenberg, despite a lone loss to Wabash, is still very much in the conference hunt.
Photo courtesy of Erin Pence

Jon Daniels had settled into his new life a few years ago, his dream of playing college football again seemingly long gone.

Daniels, who left Wittenberg after his freshman season in 2004 because of his family's financial difficulties and eventually joined the Ohio National Guard, was taking classes at Wright State and coaching middle school football.

One night he was given a sign, literally, that it was time for his life to go in a different direction.

"I was driving down the road and I saw this sign with a soldier on it, and it was for adult education classes at Wittenberg," Daniels said. "I thought that might be a good opportunity for me and perhaps give me a chance to play football again. I at least had to find out if it was possible."

Daniels sent head coach Joe Fincham a letter to see if he had a shot at playing football for the Tigers again. It was indeed possible.

"I jumped all over the opportunity," Daniels said. "Leaving the first time was so hard. It was a very difficult decision. I really didn't think I would ever play again."

Fincham, who has been the coach of the Tigers since 1996, didn't expect to see Daniels again either when he walked away from the game he loved dearly eight years ago.

One thing is for sure, he's not complaining that Daniels did come back to the team in 2010. The senior defensive end racked up 17 tackles in his first year back and tallied 42 a year ago. He has 40 tackles this season for a Wittenberg team that is 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the North Coast Athletic Conference.

"I've been around Division III football for a long time, and you rarely see players come back after they leave, but Jon had extenuating circumstances, and it's been a pleasant surprise to have him back," Fincham said. "He is a great football player and a great leader. The younger players on the team look up to him because of the way he handles things in practice and on the field."

Getting back into football shape wasn't easy.

"It was like learning to walk again," Daniels said. "I had to learn to take hits again and learn how to get used to playing games and recovering afterwards. It took time for me to adjust."

But playing football doesn't compare to what life was like for Daniels prior to his return. He joined the National Guard in 2005 and got his official release last November.

The experience of being a part of the military, however, changed his life forever. In January of 2008, Daniels was sent to Kuwait and was given various jobs. The days were long.

"We would work 12 to 16 hour days, but I would try to hit the weight room when I could to work out," Daniels said. "I definitely learned to appreciate what our military does on a daily basis. It's a huge commitment and my heart goes out to all of the people serving over there."

As for life in the middle of a desert, it wasn't easy.

"There is sand everywhere, and you can't get it out of anything. You just had to deal with it," Daniels said.

He also had to deal with living on the edge every single day. Daniels was part of a unit that helped secure the border for troops who were crossing over into Iraq.

"You never knew what the day was going to bring, and you were always on edge a little bit," Daniels said. "Eventually, I did get into a groove and just focused on doing my job, but in the back of my mind, I knew that something bad could happen."

Fortunately for Daniels, he remained safe during his time in Kuwait.

"We never had any major incidents, just a few close calls," Daniels said. "We were very lucky."

Daniels served in Kuwait until December 2008. When he returned home, it took him five to six months to get adjusted to life in the United States again.

"It was hard getting rid of that feeling of being on edge," Daniels said. "There would be times where I would drive around things I would see in the road because I was worried it was a bomb."

But life is good again for Daniels and the Tigers. They are still in the hunt for a conference championship and playoff berth after handing Allegheny its first NCAC loss of the season on Saturday. The Tigers won 35-6, and Daniels tallied three tackles.

"We still have a lot to play for," Fincham said. "We have a great tradition here at Wittenberg, and we have done a good job of getting past that loss to Wabash. The key for us is to keep playing hard."

The Tigers are cranking out 431 yards per game and allowing 300.6.

Jimmy Dehnke has rushed for 478 yards and eight touchdowns while Reed Florence has thrown for 1,654 yards and 14 touchdowns. Florence has also been tough to slow down on the ground, rushing for 368 yards and five touchdowns.

Brendon Cunningham has been the top receiving threat, making 35 catches for 503 yards and four touchdowns. Garth Gilbert has caught 21 passes for 265 yards and two scores.

Spencer Leno leads the team in tackles with 68 while Kyle Sanning (51) and Evan Killilea (42) have joined Daniels as key players on the defensive side of the ball.

"We have been playing very well as a team," Daniels said. "The loss to Wabash was tough, but we have continued to play hard, and we just have to keep grinding. We know that if we play up to our potential, we are going to give ourselves [the chance] to be there in the end."

Daniels wants to help the Tigers extend their season as long as possible, but once his career is done, he already has the next phase of his life planned out.

"I want to coach football. I enjoyed doing it before, and it's great to be able to have an impact on the lives of young athletes."

And without question, those young players won't be able to ask for a better role model than Daniels.

In the Poll

It looked like just another day at the office for Mount Union. The top-ranked Purple Raiders tied an NCAA record with their sixth consecutive shutout after blanking Otterbein 51-0 in an OAC road game on Saturday.

Mount Union has won its last 70 games in the regular season and head coach Larry Kehres is fourth all-time on the college football wins list as he won his 324th game to move past Paul "Bear" Bryant.

The Purple Raiders limited the Cardinals to 96 yards of total offense and forced four turnovers. Blair Skilliter paced the defense with six tackles. Joshua Scott and Nick Driskill finished with five tackles apiece.

The offense wasn't bad either. It generated 532 yards, and quarterback Kevin Burke looked sensational as he threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 83 yards. T.J. Lattimore rushed for a career-high three touchdowns.

The Purple Raiders are 7-0 overall and 6-0 in the OAC.

Wabash jumped up two spots to No. 11 this week after blasting Wooster 30-0 in an NCAC game on Saturday.

One of the keys to the success of the Little Giants was their ability to slow down Richard Barnes. The Wooster quarterback was held to 160 yards of offense and was sacked four times.

Denzel Wilkins fueled the solid defensive effort, tallying 10 tackles and two sacks in his first game back since sitting out because of leg injuries. Cody Buresh added eight tackles and also returned an interception for a touchdown.

Chase Belton was unable to start at quarterback after suffering a concussion last week, but Andy Walsh did a nice job of filling in. He threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another score as Wabash improved to 6-1 overall and to 3-1 in the conference.

Heidelberg didn't get a shutout on Saturday, but the No. 17 Student Princes did win another game, knocking off Muskingum 28-14 in an OAC tilt.

Cartel Brooks came through with a stellar performance, rushing for 133 yards and two touchdowns, including a 78-yard run in the third quarter that stretched the Heidelberg lead to 21-7. Brooks is now over 1,000 yards on the season.

Michael Mees threw for 122 yards and two scores but did throw an interception that Muskingum scored off of to take an early 7-0 lead.

Heidelberg was out-gained 366-354 but Dawson Gore stepped up defensively, racking up 10 tackles. For the first time all season, Heidelberg did not force a turnover but is now 7-0 for the first time since 1972. The Student Princes, who entered the game at No. 19, are 6-0 in the conference.

Waynesburg moved into the Top 25 this week after surviving a thriller against Geneva on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets edged the Golden Tornadoes 21-20 and are 8-0 for the first time since 1966, the year they won an NAIA national title. Waynesburg is 6-0 in the PAC.

Geneva held a 20-14 lead with just over seven minutes to go in the game, the Yellow Jackets dug deep and Carter Hill hit Mike Ferraro on an eight-yard scoring strike. Alex Henry's extra point gave Waynesburg the lead and their fifth consecutive single-digit win.

Bertrand Ngampa rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown while Hill threw for 149 yards. Mike Lopuchovsky paced the defense with seven tackles.

Waynesburg finished with 360 yards and allowed 439.

Inside the OAC

The win of the week in the conference belongs to Wilmington, which snapped a 32-game losing streak on Saturday with a 13-12 win over Marietta. Max Gabbard was the hero as he drilled a 35-yard field goal with 31 seconds to go, lifting the Quakers to a thrilling OAC win at Williams Stadium.

Marietta still had an opportunity to win the game but Joe Joe Knecht stepped up with the game on the line, picking off a pass in the end zone with two seconds to go. It was his first interception of the season.

The Quakers had the ball with 1:51 to go, and Brandon Arehart, who has never won a game in his college career, threw three consecutive passes to Jeremy Duncan and hit Antonio Turner on a 28-yard pass that put the Quakers on the 13-yard line of the Pioneers.

Wilmington was unable to punch it in, setting the stage for Gabbard's kick. Arehart threw for 112 yards and Duncan caught five passes for 45 yards. Nick Williams came through with 10 tackles in his first career start.

Wilmington is 1-6 overall and 1-5 in the OAC. It finished with only 217 yards of offense but still managed to nail down a victory for the first time since beating John Carroll 24-16 in October of 2009. Interestingly enough, the next opponent on Wilmington's schedule is John Carroll.

Speaking of John Carroll, it needed to step up twice in the final eight minutes of the game against Ohio Northern to secure a 28-23 victory on Saturday.

The Blue Streaks needed two goal line stands to get by the Polar Bears and win their fourth consecutive game. It was their first win over Ohio Northern since 2005. Kevin Cope came up big on the second goal line stand as he picked off a throw to the end zone in the final seconds. Cope tallied 12 tackles.

Mark Myers threw for 236 yards and one touchdown to pace the Blue Streaks, who improved to 5-2 overall and to 4-2 in the OAC. Sean Kuenzig rushed for a pair of touchdowns in the win.

Tate Humphrey helped staked the Polar Bears to a 16-7 lead in the first after rushing for one touchdown and throwing for another. Humphrey threw for 306 yards and two scores but Ohio Northern went into halftime down 21-16.

Inside the NCAC

The magic continued for Ohio Wesleyan over the weekend as it scored the final 17 points of its nonconference road game against Carnegie Mellon on Saturday to nail down a 34-26 come-from-behind victory in Pittsburgh.

The Battling Bishops are 7-0 overall for the first time since 1992 and have won their last 10 games dating back to the 2011 campaign. It is their longest streak since winning 10 consecutive during a run in 1991 and 1992.

Ohio Wesleyan took the lead for good with 6:58 to play in the game as Mason Espinosa hit Calvin Cagney on a 5-yard scoring strike to put the Battling Bishops in front 27-26. Espinosa capped the scoring later in the quarter when he hooked up with Cagney on a 40-yard touchdown pass.

Espinosa hit on 43 of his 65 passes as he threw for 415 yards. He also shredded the Tartans' defense for four touchdown passes. His passing total is the fifth-best performance in school history while the attempts and completions rank second on the single-game lists.

Cagney caught 16 passes for 151 yards and three touchdowns while Tyler Sheetz dominated defensively, tallying 14 tackles to go along with two sacks.

The Tartans, who fell to 5-2, had a 26-17 lead after Liam Mcgrath returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown. Mcgrath finished with eight tackles.

Rob Kalkstein threw for 162 yards and one touchdown. He was picked off twice. Erra Hernandez rushed for a pair of touchdowns for Carnegie Mellon.

Kenyon jumped in front early and then held on for a 21-19 win over DePauw on Saturday. The Lords pushed their record to 4-3 overall and to 3-1 in the NCAC. The Tigers slipped to 1-6 overall and to 0-4 in conference play as they lost their third consecutive game by four points or less.

Carlos Gagliardo scored on a 90-yard kickoff return to give the Lords an early 7-0 lead and Gagliardo also caught a 53-yard touchdown pass from Dan Shannon.

Gagliardo finished his day making two catches for 73 yards. Shannon hit on 11 of his 21 passes for 151 yards. Brett Williams rushed for 127 yards and one touchdown.

Kolin Sullivan anchored the defense with 18 tackles while Antonio Caltado and Reed Franklin came through with 11 and 10 tackles, respectively.

Armani Cato scored twice to lead the Tigers, including on a 1-yard run with 3:04 remaining in the game that sliced the Kenyon lead to 21-19. Cato rushed for 30 yards. Drew Seaman threw for 322 yards and Jack Quinn tallied 13 tackles to lead the DePauw defense.

Inside the PAC

It was a record-breaking day for Thomas More defensive back Zach Autenrieb, who broke the D-III interception record in style on Saturday in the Saints' 27-0 win over Grove City.

Autenrieb picked off the record-breaking 30th pass of his career with a little over 10 minutes to go in the half and raced 100 yards for a touchdown to put the Saints in front 7-0. The lead would hold up through halftime.

Autenrieb's interception broke the previous record of 29, which Rochester's Ralph Gebhardt set in 1975. He would come through with his second interception of the day later in the game and he also tallied four tackles as the Saints improved to 4-3 overall and to 4-2 in PAC action.

Jenson Gebhardt threw a pair of touchdown passes in the win as well, hitting Cody Hinkel on a 6-yard pass and finding Goose Cohorn for a 19-yard scoring strike.

Gebhardt threw for 207 yards on the day and Cohorn caught five passes for 58 yards.

Mike McDonald threw for 98 yards to pace Grove City, which fell to 3-4 overall and to 2-3 in the conference. Shawn Mercer tallied eight tackles for the Wolverines.

It turned out to be the Dak Britt show for Westminster as it rolled to a 45-28 win over Bethany on Saturday.

Britt rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns, including one on a 73-yard run, the longest of the season by any Titan player. Britt also threw for 143 yards in the victory.

Westminster raised its overall mark to 3-3 and is now 2-3 in the conference. Tyler Banks wasn't bad either for the Titans, rushing for 195 yards and two scores and catching four passes for 83 yards. Cory Neill led the defense with 12 tackles and Nate Moot added 11 tackles.

Bethany dropped to 1-6 overall and to 1-4 in the conference. Ed Holmes rushed for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass to pace the Bison. Kyle Arrington racked up 12 tackles.

Quick look at the Spartans

The final nonconference game of the year was a thriller for Case Western Reserve. Billy Beecher hooked up with Bryan Erb on a 3-yard scoring strike in overtime to lift the Spartans to a 24-17 road win over Oberlin.

The Spartans are now 4- 3 overall and have won their last 28 games against the Yeomen.

Beecher was making his first career start and threw the first touchdown pass of his career in the win. He ended up with 60 passing yards and 51 on the ground. Erb caught five passes for 48 yards.

Ryan Ferguson came through with 19 tackles and one interception to pace the defense. Kevin Nossem and Jordan Banky tallied nine tackles apiece.

Case Western Reserve will now look to take the momentum into UAA play. The Spartans are the defending conference champions and have won four of the last five titles.

Perfection

Only four teams are still perfect in the Great Lakes Region, and that number will be down to three after this weekend.

Mount Union and Heidelberg, tied for first in the OAC, will duke it out on Saturday in Alliance. It will be a matchup of the two teams that feature the top offenses and defenses in the conference.

Only one team is still perfect in the NCAC and that is Ohio Wesleyan. The Battling Bishops will try to stay on track for the league title when they play host to Wabash on Saturday. Ohio Wesleyan is averaging 406.6 yards per game.

Waynesburg is the lone unbeaten in the PAC. The Yellow Jackets have remained perfect despite turning the ball over 14 times and forcing only eight turnovers.

Notes

Even though Geneva came up short on the scoreboard against Waynesburg, Dillon Goodell had a monster day for the Golden Tornadoes as he racked up 18 tackles and picked off two passes in a 21-20 loss. Goodell is the leading tackler on the team this year with 80 tackles....Hiram is still winless (0-7) after a 23-7 setback to Chicago on Saturday. One of the few highlights of the game was 91-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Dominick Harper. Harper tallied three tackles and has 54 tackles on the season for the Terriers...Michael Slack rushed for a pair of touchdowns to help Baldwin Wallace knock off Capital 39-16 on Saturday. The sophomore quarterback scored on a 13-yard run in the third quarter and a 6-yard run in the fourth as he finished with 66 rushing yards. Slack has rushed for 186 yards and three scores this season...Washington and Jefferson secured its 29th consecutive winning season on Saturday with a 40-14 victory over Saint Vincent. Dion Wiegand rushed for 168 yards for the Presidents, who now own the fifth-longest streak in all of NCAA football for consecutive winning seasons.

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Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Findlay, Ohio. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending the last 10 at The Courier in Findlay. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

2011 columnist: Dean Jackson
2007-10 columnist: Matt Florjancic

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