It’s crunch time for Division III’s Midwest teams with three games left, and in one league two games left. While it is not unusual to see the league pictures unresolved at this point of the season, it can be said it has been just a little bit wacky in some circles.
Last week, we featured longtime football bridesmaid Ripon finally holding the lead in the Midwest Conference ahead of five teams nipping at the Red Hawks heels. Well, after Ripon’s loss to Illinois College last weekend, the MWC is now in a Boy Scout’s knot of four teams for first place – Carroll, Illinois College, Ripon and St. Norbert all at 5-2 in league play.
Some of this will work itself out on Saturday when longtime league power St. Norbert travels to Ripon for the biggest game of the week in the conference. If Ripon win, the Red Hawks will be one win away from a share of the crown, but it may not guarantee them the MWC’s automatic bid. The same can be said for St. Norbert if the Knights win.
The team that holds the tiebreaker against both of the preseason MWC favorites is the Blue Boys of Illinois College, which was picked to finish sixth in the MWC preseason poll. The Blue Boys have beaten St. Norbert and Ripon this season.
“Since day one when I got here, head coach (Garrett) Campbell has preached that we are gonna win a championship,” Illinois College receiver Colin Duling told the Journal-Courier after the team’s upset of Ripon 40-35 on Saturday. “That’s what we’ve set out to do and if we win the next two weeks, we’re gonna do it. Let’s go and get two more wins.”
But Carroll, the fourth team tied for the top, has beaten Illinois College, leaving the possibility of a possible three-way tie after this weekend. Carroll was picked to finish fifth in the preseason.
None of the top teams play each other in the final week, possibly leaving the MWC tied between two or three teams.
Big games await CCIW’s top teams
While the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin is far from settled as well, the teams at the top are well expected. No. 5-ranked North Central (4-0, 7-0 overall) and No. 17-ranked Wheaton (4-0, 7-0 overall) are tied for the top spot and two weeks away from the big Little Brass Bell game on Nov. 6.
North Central and Wheaton are two of the top teams in the nation, leading the CCIW in offense – Wheaton is averaging 38.3 points a game and North Central is averaging 36.9 points per game – but they are also two of the top defensive squads. North Central’s defense, led by linebacker Matt Wenger, is giving up 8.3 points per game while the Thunder is surrendering 16.3 points per contest.
A team that could foul up the Nov. 6 title game plans is Augustana. The Vikings are3-1 in the CCIW play and 5-2 overall. Augustana lost to North Central earlier this season but plays Wheaton at home on Saturday. The Vikings will be hoping the Thunder has one eye on North Central, which could create another three-way tie in the CCIW.
Franklin, Hanover heading for showdown
The Franklin Grizzlies have led wire-to-wire in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, but a team that once dominated the HCAC, Hanover, is making resurgence this season. Behind one of the country’s top pass catchers Daniel Passafiume, the Panthers are having one of its best seasons in five years with a 5-2 record and 4-1 in conference play.
Franklin (6-1, 5-0) has been cruising behind quarterback Kyle Ray. Ray is averaging 275 passing yards per game and needs 75 yards in Saturday’s game against Anderson to go over 2,000 passing yards this season. His 135 completions and 72.6 percent completion rate also leads the HCAC.
The Grizzlies are averaging 495 yards of total offense a game, but Hanover is averaging 406 points per contest as well. Passafiume leads the HCAC with 112.6 pass catching yards per game and nine touchdowns.
The Defiance Yellow Jackets (4-1, 4-3 overall) will likely become Hanover fans on Nov. 13. The Yellow Jackets, with a victory over Hanover and a loss to Franklin, would snag a share of the title if Hanover is able to pull off the upset against the defending HCAC champions. After starting the season 1-3, Defiance and rolled up three straight wins to put itself into contention.
Benedictine owns own destiny
Things are just a little clearer in the Northern Athletic Conference where the Benedictine Eagles are in charge with a 4-0 conference record and a 5-2 record overall.
Benedictine has three games left – Saturday at Lakeland (1-3, 2-5), Nov. 6 at home against Rockford (0-4, 0-7) and Nov. 13 at Wisconsin Lutheran (3-1, 5-2). Now while the game with Wisconsin Lutheran may seem to be obvious big game, Lakeland was the NATHC playoff representative last year because of Benedictine’s victory over Chicago, Ill. in the final game of the season in 2009.
Benedictine earned its first winning season under coach Jon Cooper, who came over from the Aurora coaching staff in 2005, taking over a staff that was 1-9 the year before.
Wisconsin Lutheran, a former member of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association before joining the NATHC, is tied with Aurora and Concordia (Ill.) for second place with a 3-1 record. The Warriors have their own big game Nov. 6 when it travels to Aurora. With one more win, Dennis Miller’s Wisconsin Lutheran team will record its first winning season in the history of the program, which started in 2000.
But the Eagles remain the owners of their own destiny. A loss could reopen the door for the second place teams, including Concordia (Ill.), which has quietly put together another impressive season after going for more than a decade without a winning record.
There are plenty of things that can still happen over the next three weeks in the Midwest that can profoundly shape the Division III playoff picture, but everyone realizes it is now crunch time for the rest of the season.