Uncharted territory

Michael Whitley and the Muskies earned a first-round trip to their state's preeminent D-III power.
Lakeland athletics photo

The Rose-Hulman Fightin' Engineers are doing two things that its football team has never done before.

One is earning a trip the Division III playoff after winning a co-HCAC championship and the conference's automatic playoff bid. Coach Jeff Sokol said that the squad also never had to contend with fitting football practice into finals.

"Our guys are in finals and won't be able to practice until Wednesday," said Sokol as the Fightin' Engineers (8-2) get ready to travel to Naperville, Illinois to take on No. 5 North Central (10-0). "Other than that, that's a good problem to have. No Rose-Hulman team has had to practice during finals. It will be a unique challenge. After (finals) they won't have anything else to worry about at that point."

Rose-Hulman advanced to the playoff with the help of an upset victory over then No. 14 Franklin last month, allowing them to tie the Grizzlies for the HCAC crown.

"This has always been a goal of ours," Sokol said Sunday after the Division III selection show. "This is a great institution that we take to represent on the national stage. We're thrilled to have an opportunity to do that. North Central is a great opponent that we're excited to play. I know a lot about North Central after being at the University of Chicago for 11 years and what a great job the Thornes have done there."

Jeff Thorne, the Cardinals second-year head coach, returns North Central to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. North Central is led by freshman quarterback Broc Rutter (189-283-4, 34 touchdowns) and a defense that is surrendering a little over 16 points per game. Rose-Hulman is led by three-year starter Austin Swenson (246-407-7, 24 touchdowns) and a veteran defense.

"Franklin is a great program and we know that was a high-quality win for them," Thorne said of Rose-Hulman. "So we know we're going to be tested against a really good team and we're going to need a really good week of preparation to get ready to play our best football on Saturday. Coach Sokol does a great job with that program. We know they like to work quickly on offense and that's going to give us some headaches."

Thorne said what he is not worried about is looking ahead to a potential rematch with Little Brass Bell rival, No. 13 Wheaton (9-1), in the second round if the Thunder win against No. 25 Huntingdon (9-1) in its playoff opener.

"Our approach all season has been one week at a time and one game at a time," Thorne said. "You can't afford to look forward. If you're chasing two rabbits, you're guaranteed not to get either one of them. That won't change. We know that every opponent at this point is a real quality opponent who can beat you if you're not at your best."

Lakeland (7-3), which makes back-to-back appearances in the Division III playoffs for the first time ever, has the heavy task of playing No. 2 UW-Whitewater (10-0). Lakeland lost to Wheaton 55-6 in the first round of the playoffs last year.

Muskies head coach Colin Bruton said he believes the game will be won in the trenches, an area that Lakeland has seen progress in during the season.

"We've always said that we think our skill guys can compete just about anywhere," Bruton said. "It comes down to up front and can we be competitive enough in these types of games to allow our outside guys a chance to win. So it may come down to are we big enough and strong enough along the line to have a shot."

Lakeland's school record-setting quarterback Michael Whitley (163-273-6, 19 touchdowns) leads the Muskies against arguably the best program in all of Division III. Bruton said with UW-Whitewater being a fellow Wisconsin institution, they will be familiar with what they are up against in the Warhawks.

"I don't know if it's ever good to be playing Whitewater, but I think they're a state school and we have some familiarity with their kids," Bruton said. "They have kids that we recruited and a lot of our players have played against. There might not be the shock value for us playing them because our guys know who they are."

No. 21 Monmouth (10-0), the Midwest Conference champ led by one of the country's stingiest defenses, meets an old foe when the Fighting Scots travel to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to play No. 16 Coe (10-0). Monmouth and Coe used to play regularly when they were both members of the MWC, but have not played against each other since 1997.

Chad Braun, who leads Monmouth into the playoffs in his second year as head coach, explained the game's connection though his offensive coordinator Joe Freitag, who earned his bachelor's at Monmouth and his master's degree at Coe.

"My offensive coordinator was a graduate assistant at Coe and he knows the (Coe coach Tyler) Staker family really well," Braun said with a laugh. "When he got married, the table I was sitting at was with all of those guys (from Coe). So it's kind of all come full circle. Their defensive coordinator (Larry Atwater) X'd and O'd with me here and we're all friends, so I think there's a lot of respect between the two programs. I have great respect for what Tyler has done there."

If Monmouth, which has been ranked for the first time in a final handful of national rankings, was disappointed not to get a home game from the selection committee, Braun did not show it.

"We understand the perception out there and we hadn't been in the playoffs in several years," Braun said. "Besides, it's not like we're traveling for eight hours. Cedar Rapids is 2.5 hours (away) and it's not a bad trip at all. Obviously, we would have had loved another home game in front of our fans, but we think our fans will travel pretty well to Cedar Rapids.

"The Midwest Conference has won three games in the playoffs and I've experienced two of them (as a Monmouth assistant coach). None of our guys have but that doesn't matter. The Chicago Cubs had no experience in winning the World Series but they went out and did it. If we come out and play to the best of our ability, we'll let the chips fall wherever they end up."

Monmouth has surrendered just 8.4 points per game, one of the best in the country, and less than 200 yards in total offense to its opponents. Braun said, though, his offense cannot afford to turn over the football and will need to establish the run behind 1,000-yard rusher DeAndre Wright (111.7 yards per game) and Trent Rains (60.8 yards per game) if it plans on moving on in the playoffs.

"We've got to take care of the football," Braun said. "We've got to be able to run the football and at times make Coe one-dimensional on offense. I haven't had a chance to watch them on film yet to assess what we're going to have to do well yet."

Let the playoffs begin.

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

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