Even as optimistic as Mount St. Joseph coach Rod Huber usually
is, even he had to admit this week his Lions 9-0 season came to him
as a complete surprise.
Mount St. Joseph only starts a handful of seniors on offense and defense, held over from a team that went 5-5 last season. Now with the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference title already in hand and a playoff berth awaiting them, Huber said he’s had a chance to step back a second and think – “where did that come from?”
“We’re all giddy here,” Huber told D3football.com this week as his No. 25-ranked Lions prepare for its annual Bridge Bowl rivalry game with across-the-Ohio River neighbor and No. 11-ranked Thomas More. “I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming.”
The Lions had owned the HCAC between 2004-2007, capturing three conference titles, four playoff appearances while going 37-7 during the regular season and 24-2 in conference play.
With the emergence of Franklin as a national power, though, Mount St. Joseph fell on hard times last year with a 5-5 record. The big game with Thomas More Saturday could mean a home game, but Huber said Mount St. Joseph would concentrate on Mount St. Joseph this week. Thomas More, like the Lions, are 9-0 this season and champions of the tough Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
“Oh, we’ll have to play our best game of the season and we’ll need them to make some mistakes,” Huber said matter-of-factly. “They’re better than us. That’s no secret. We hope to close the gap this year, be close in the fourth quarter with a chance to win. They beat us up and down the field last year.”
Huber said, though, the thing that has made this team unique from many of his other teams is its unity and the way players pull for each other. In that, he said, it gives them a chance to be in any ballgame.
“These guys have what I can’t coach, and that’s chemistry,” Huber said. “There’s a lot of love on this team. That won’t win you a game but it’s a great feeling to know how much they care about each other. This isn’t a gifted team athletically, but they’ve overcome some of those things with tremendous desire and teamwork.
One of the key ingredients continues to be the emergence of quarterback Craig Mustard, the 23-year-old junior who out of the blue landed on Huber’s doorstep last Christmas wanting to get back into college football.
“He hadn’t played organized football in four years and now he’s throwing bullets,” said Huber of his quarterback who was at Miami (Ohio) and NAIA power Georgetown College in Kentucky. “He’s got some savvy and leadership qualities around him.”
Going into the Thomas More game, Mustard as completed 63 percent of his passes (144 of 227) with nine interceptions and 17 touchdowns. Derrick Taber as caught 13 of those touchdowns and is averaging 102.3 yards catching per game.
“We’ve won championships in the past here with good defense and running the ball,” Huber said. “In my 23 years of coaching, the thing that I’ve learned this season was the importance of recruiting a great quarterback. He takes a lot of stress of the offensive line because he can get the ball out of there. This guy’s got a little (Brett) Favre in him. He’s been dinked up, but at 6-2, 216 pounds, he just gets up and is ready to play the next play.”
Huber said Mount St. Joseph is already in playoff mode for Thomas More. He said the best thing about the game is that it will give his team a view of what competition will be like the following week in the playoffs.
“The nice thing about this game is that no matter what, there’s going to be an 11th week,” Huber said. “With that said, being the underdog, we’re going to enjoy this, and not put too much pressure on these kids that they must beat Thomas More. We’ll try to make some big plays, take care of the ball and stick with plan that got us to 9-0. “
That plan seems to have worked pretty well since September.
• No. 14 Illinois Wesleyan (8-1, 5-1), with its big 20-17
win over Wheaton, has finally gotten people’s attention. The
Titans are tied with No. 16 North Central (7-2, 5-1) for the
College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title. But with its
on-the-field win over the Cardinals, all the Titans have to do is
beat North Park (1-8, 0-6) on Saturday and they are in. A stumble,
North Central gets the title if they beat Elmhurst. The
CCIW’s third ranked team, No. 21 Wheaton (7-2, 4-2) –
after being ranked in the Top 5 most of the season – now must
beat Carthage and hope for a Pool C bid to get in regardless of
what Illinois Wesleyan and North Central does.
• The living, though, is easy for No. 8 Monmouth (10-0), with a perfect record and resting for the playoffs. It’s still uncertain if the Fighting Scots will get a home game but they can make a strong argument for one, including its playoff success last year. Monmouth beat Aurora 42-13 in the first round and was edged out by Wartburg 30-28 in the second round in 2008.
• Concordia (Ill.) has one win to goal to claim its improbable Northern Athletic Conference title. Yes, I’m a little proud of myself by pointing these guys out to you on Sept. 15 back when they were 2-0. It was just something about them. It’s been well documented that Concordia’s eight wins this season equals the number of wins the team has collected in the past five seasons combined. The Cougars (8-1, 5-1) are tied with Lakeland (5-4, 5-1) for the NATHC lead, but Concordia beat Lakeland in conference play. Concordia takes on Benedictine (5-4, 4-2), which could make for an interesting game. Benedictine is coming off a 16-14 victory over Wisconsin Lutheran last weekend. If you remember, Wisconsin Lutheran was the team that handed Concordia its only loss this season. A Cougar stumble and a Lakeland victory over Aurora would give the Muskies the title and an automatic bid to the playoffs.