|The return of Rob Gallik
after he tore his ACL late last season has helped Illinois Wesleyan
get back into contention in the CCIW.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
Norm Eash said he did not see his No. 20-ranked Illinois Wesleyan football team as the "forgotten" national-ranked team in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, even though No. 4-ranked North Central and No. 10-ranked Wheaton have been in the Top 25 all season while his undefeated Titans are a recent entry.
"I think (people know) that we're here year in and year out," Eash said this week as his team prepares to go through its most important stretch of games this season. We have a great tradition here and we've been successful over the years. I think people looked at our 6-4 record last year and 3-4 in the conference and probably didn't understand what we went through. I don't think they expected us to be here."
Or they wanted to wait to see if they could bounce back. So far, they have.
Illinois Wesleyan, Wheaton and North Central will play a sort of a round-robin tournament over the next three weeks that will – unless something unusual happens which can in the CCIW – essentially decide the conference title and the league's automatic bid.
The good thing for Illinois Wesleyan, who has 32 seniors on the team, is that this Saturday's game against Wheaton and next week's contest against North Central, will take place in the friendly confines of Tucci Stadium in Bloomington, Ill.
Last year, both of these games, each Titan losses, were on the road.
"We're excited to be playing at home this year," Eash said. "Three of our last four games last year were on the road. This time, we have those games at home. Just like how Wheaton plays great at home, I think we play great at home. We have a great fans base. It's tough to win on the road in the CCIW."
The things Eash said he would like to avoid this year are injuries. He lost star quarterback Rob Gallik last year during the Wheaton game last year. Illinois Wesleyan was up by two touchdowns before falling to the Thunder and closing out the season with four losses after starting 6-0.
"We have to stay healthy," Eash said. "We didn't play very well against North Central last year because we were decimated by injuries in the Wheaton game. Now, the good thing is that we have a lot more depth this year than we did last year. We can beat Wheaton, but we want to stay healthy as well."
This year, Gallik is completing nearly 65 percent of his passes (64.94 to be precise) and has thrown for 16 touchdowns. In the backfield, Devonte Jones has received the bulk of the headlines as one of the nation's leading rushers with a 124.1-yards per game average. Jones all-purpose yards (210 yards per game), which includes receives and kickoff returns, is ranked third best in the nation.
Eash said, though, he's not alone.
"Devonte rushed for over 100 yards in our last four games last year and this year he's really picked it up," Eash said. "Sean Conley is our fullback and T.J. Stinde has been as healthy as he's every been when Devonte's not in. I think we have a three-headed monster back there."
Eash said while his defense may be a bit undersized, they make up for it with quickness and their ability to run to the football, negating any weight disadvantage they give up.
"We have a veteran team on defense," Eash said. "We put a lot of seniors out there. We're not big but we're extremely fast. They are fast and quick, and we will need that trying to stop Wheaton's (quarterback) Jordan Roberts. We have to get him stopped. He's a great QB and knows how the run the show. That will be one the keys to the game."
Roberts is Wheaton's leading rusher, with 386 yards over six games and is also completing 66.7 percent of his passes (110-165-2) this season.
Eash said whoever comes out of the Illinois Wesleyan-Wheaton-North Central mini-series will certainly be battled tested for the playoffs.
"To win the CCIW, you have to win CCIW games," Eash said. "I don't have a problem tooting the CCIW's horn because we have a great conference. Any team from our conference that goes into the playoffs will be ready for anyone they play."
Eash has done his share of winning in the CCIW, with seven conference titles and four trips to the Division III playoffs, its last in 2011. He said he hopes Saturday will be the start of marching to another appearance.
Millikin's Sean Dunning and Augustana's Sean Frasco didn't have any problem running for daylight in Augustana's 47-19 victory last week in CCIW play. Dunning, one of the leading rushers in all of Division III, rushed for 254 yards against Augustana. On the flipside, Frasco rushed for 203 yards and then passed for another 149 yards.
Lakeland (4-2, 3-0 in Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference) at Concordia, Wis. (4-2, 3-0)
This is a showdown of the last two undefeated teams in the NACC with the winner getting the inside edge for the conference title and playoff spot. The Concordia Falcons have won the two contests between the two teams. Lakeland is trying to put together its first winning season since 2009, the last time the Muskies won the conference and made it into the Division III playoffs.
No. 12 Franklin (4-2, 4-0 in Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference) at Rose-Hulman (4-2, 4-0)
Another showdown of the last two undefeated teams in the conference. The Grizzlies have been steamrolling HCAC opponents, averaging 62.5 points a game. While not collecting as an outrageous number as Franklin, the Fightin' Engineers have been pretty good on offense as well, averaging 34.8 points a contest.