A dream season

More news about: Mount St. Joseph
James Clay went over 2,000 yards for the season with a game to go.
MSJ athletics photo 

When teams have played Mount St. Joseph this season, there has been little surprise who would be carrying the football.

Yet, senior James Clay is having the kind of season most running backs would dream of. In the face of opponents placing eight and nine players in the box, Clay went over the 2,000-yard mark last week against Earlham. In Mount St. Joseph’s 4-5 season, Clay continued to be a constant source of inspiration and determination.

“I tell you that James Clay doesn’t even know he’s leading the country in rushing,” said Lions coach Rod Huber, attesting to his running back’s humbleness and maturity. “He doesn’t care. He loves to play, being around a bunch of guys he loves being with and is trying as hard as he can to win games every Saturday. This is a person who almost dropped out of college in the first couple of years now he’s on schedule to graduate in May and been invited to play in the Aztec Bowl. That maturity is what is most satisfying to see.”

Needless to say, his 222.4 yards per game on 287 carries have shattered nearly every rushing record at Mount St. Joseph while leading the nation in rushing. In fact, his 7.0 yards per carry this season is down from his 7.9 per carry last season when he rushed for 1,132 yards on 144 carries and averaged 113.2 yards per game.

Huber said, though, the Lions struggled in the passing game early in the season and began to lean on Clay more and more to be competitive in games. He said Clay never complained as he took the mantle in an effort to lead the team.

“He has taken the entire team on his shoulders,” Huber. “Everyone knows that we’re a below-average passing team this year. If we had a passing game, we would really be dangerous. We were struggling but James was someone who wanted that responsibility. He’s very unselfish. We gave him the game ball several weeks ago after rushing for over 300 yards and he turned around and tossed it to the offensive line and said ‘that’s your ball.’ ”

In that game, rushing for 342 yards on 32 carries against Anderson, Clay set the school’s single-game mark and is the third highest total this season in all of college football. Only Concordia-Chicago’s Andrew Maddox 355-yard performance against Concordia (Wis.) and Indiana State’s Shakir Bell’s 349-yard effort against Drake topped Clay’s Anderson totals.

The appreciate the numbers Clay have put up when everyone from the defensive linemen to the ticket takers knew he would carry the ball at least 25 times, you have to look at it in context of all other collegiate running backs this season. Clay is the only back to average more than 200 yards a game this season, regardless of division. In Division III, Elmhurst’s Scottie Williams is in second place, averaging a “mere” 171.3 yards per game.

In fact, Clay has rushed for 200 yards or better in every game except the Lions loss to No. 16 Franklin. The Grizzlies held Clay to 65 yards on 27 carries in a 38-0 loss on Oct. 6.

“We knew he was our best player on the offensive side of the ball and we had to try to see how we can get him the ball,” Huber said. “It’s not like we’re running a lot of trick plays. We run the ball of the middle and tell him to go get ’em. We line up, run power and run zone.”

The Lions will try to even its record against Thomas More in the annual Bridge Bowl game Saturday. Regardless, James Clay has given Mount St. Joseph something to follow while giving college football fans one of the top rushing performances in college football history.

Manchester: My bad

Apparently my column last week, where I kind of played up the Hanover-Franklin Victory Bell game for the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship a week early, reached the viewing of the Manchester Spartans, Hanover’s opponent last Saturday. While conference’s automatic bid would come down to that game regardless of the Manchester-Hanover last week, the Spartans went on to score a 35-34 upset of the Panthers. I received this email from Manchester’s starting right tackle Tommy Webster after the game.

“... I am sending this e-mail to tell you that you greatly underestimated our team. In your column you wrote, "The Panthers are 6-2, undefeated in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference and after playing Manchester on Saturday, will battle rival No. 21 Franklin for the league title, the Victory Bell and an automatic bid to the playoffs." Always go for the upset. Keep up the good writing because I do enjoy seeing what you write from the HCAC.”

Tommy, you got me. Actually Manchester, which is 4-2 in HCAC play and 5-4 overall is playing Anderson (0-9, 0-7) in an effort to gain the Spartans’ first winning season since 1987. The Spartan program has come a long way and actually Hanover coach Steve Baudendistel predicted to me it would be a dogfight against Manchester. Congratulations to Manchester and good luck against Anderson.

Playoff talk

Let the scoreboard watching begin. In the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, it’s pretty simple. Yes, the earlier mentioned Victory Bell game with Hanover (6-3, 6-1) traveling to No. 16-ranked Franklin (7-2, 7-0) will determined who will advance to the Division III playoff out of the HCAC. The loser, with multiple losses, will stay home, so this one is pretty big.

No. 15 Wheaton’s victory over No. 14 North Central in the Little Brass Bell game has made things a little more complicated in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. There is a three-way tie for first between Wheaton, North Central and Elmhurst, who makes its appearance in the Top 25 this week at No. 20.

If North Central and Elmhurst win, North Central will claim the CCIW’s automatic bid. If North Central and Wheaton wins, but Elmhurst loses, Wheaton gets the automatic bid because of Wheaton’s victory over the Cardinals last week.

Finally, if Elmhurst and Wheaton wins and North Central loses this week, Elmhurst gets the automatic bid because of its head-to-head victory over the Thunder. Whew. So, in short, you are watching these games in the CCIW:

  • Elmhurst (8-1, 5-1) at Illinois Wesleyan (6-3, 3-3)
  • North Park (1-8, 0-6) at Wheaton (7-2, 5-1)
  • North Central (7-2, 5-1) at Augustana (5-4, 4-2)

Lake Forest (8-1, 8-0) can make things simple in the Midwest Conference by beating St. Norbert (7-2, 7-1) on Saturday. Lake Forest can win its first outright MWC title since 1983 with a win and clinch a playoff berth. If St. Norbert wins and Illinois College (8-1, 7-1) beats Carroll (7-2, 6-2), it would create a three-way tie and Illinois College would grab the MWC’s automatic bid based on the conference’s “quarters led” tie breaker. St. Norbert can still win the automatic bid if Illinois College loses to Carroll based on the head-to-head victory over Lake Forest. It would be the Green Knights’ 14th MWC title since joining the MWC in football in 1984.

Finally, Concordia-Chicago (9-0. 6-0) has already clinched the Northern Athletics Conference’s automatic berth and a share of the league title. The Cougars, which will make its first-ever playoff appearance in football, can win the title outright with a victory Saturday over Maranatha Baptist (0-9, 0-6 NAC). Concordia-Chicago is one of two undefeated teams not ranked in the Top 25 (the other is Trinity, Conn., at 7-0).

Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss
1999-2000 columnist: Don Stoner

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