|Wheaton's defense has dominated in the trenches this season.
Photo by Matthew McClure, d3photography.com
It is now the waiting game for the Wheaton Thunder.
One would think a No. 12 national ranking, a 7-1 record, and a lone loss to Little Brass Bell rival and sixth-ranked North Central would be plenty to earn a Pool C bid for the Division III playoffs. But the past playoff road is littered with teams in nearly identical positions as Wheaton and the selection committee passed on them at the end of the regular season.
Wheaton coach Mike Swider said he has little time to worry about the past for the Division III selection committee because if the Thunder falls in Rock Island, Ill. Saturday against Augustana, it all won't matter anyway.
"The way I look at it is that you can't control what you can't control," Swider said this week as his Thunder work on finishing the season against the Vikings and next week at home against Carroll. "We have no control over things like polls and rankings. The only thing we can control is this week, and then we can control next week.
"That's what we're interested in controlling. So we're concentrating on Week 9 against Augustana. To spend time and energy worrying about things that are going to change dramatically in the next two weeks in my mind is wasted energy. No one can predict what's going to happen over the next two weeks, so why worry about it."
Wheaton has plenty of things on its side. The Thunder was riding a 27-game regular season streak before North Central snapped it two weeks ago in a 35-25 loss. Wheaton's defense, anchored by its defensive line, is only surrendering a measly 1.7 yards per carry on the ground this season.
"Our front really has played well this season," Swider said. "Our defensive front is playing at a high level right now. We take great pride in stopping the run and being a good run defense. We've done that well, so our guys up front start everything."
Swider cited defensive end Chase Greenlee and linebackers like Eric Stevenson, Caleb Ashby and Luke Sahly as helping lead the Thunder in the strong defensive effort all season long.
Offensively, Wheaton has been up and down, struggling to score points against Elmhurst (a 10-6 win) and Carthage (a 19-14 win), but scoring 60 points last Saturday against North Park.
"We've been a little inconsistent on offense," Swider said. "We've had some injuries along the offensive line. We haven't been able to play with one unit up front. That's been the biggest thing. We're just now starting to get healthy and get our kids back.
"We haven't been playing with the same five each week. That's a hard thing to do. So, once we get those guys healthy so we play with the same group up front over two or three weeks, it will be a really positive thing."
Swider said he was pleased with his running back tandem of Sola Olateju (87 carries, 530 yards) and Stone Watson (54 carries, 316 yards) and added that tight end Zach Lindquist (29 catches, 270 yards) and receiver Trey Hanley (24 catches, 428 yards, six touchdowns) have been effective pass catchers. Swider added that freshman Phillip Nichols has been a pleasant surprise, with 24 catches for 440 yards.
"He's been an impact guy. You don't always expect freshmen to be impact guys," Swider added.
Quarterback Andy Bowers has had a solid season for Wheaton so far, completing nearly 62 percent of his passes (122 of 202, four interceptions), throwing for 1,731 yards and 18 touchdowns.
"He's a very athletic young man," Swider said of Bowers. "Add all those guys up together at our skill positions, they have been very, very good."
Swider said even with the lofty national ranking, winning streak, and chance to reach the Division III playoffs for the third consecutive season, he is as proud of his players off the field as well as on it. He said it all plays in the overall tradition at Wheaton.
"A lot of the tradition has been established not only on the field but off the field here," Swider said. "We've experienced success on the field and that's great, but we really pride ourselves in getting them to understand that life is about service. We go on mission trips in the summer to all corners of the globe. There's a greater purpose in life. We're a Christian college and God calls us to be men of service."
The only thing on Wheaton's plate right now is Augustana on Saturday, then Carroll, and the waiting game begins.
Game of the Week 1: Showtime in the Midwest Conference
Well, the showdown in the Midwest Conference has finally arrived with St. Norbert (6-2, 6-0 in MWC) taking on No. 25 Monmouth (8-0, 6-0) on Saturday. Both teams are steamrolling as they roar into what is essentially the conference's title game – St. Norbert is averaging 53 points per game over its last six contests while Monmouth is averaging 58.6 points per contest over the last five games. St. Norbert beat Monmouth last year, 16-7, for the MWC title when the league was divided into two divisions. Monmouth ranks in the NCAA top 10 in five offensive and five defensive categories –fifth in total defense, eighth in total offense, ninth in fourth down conversion and 10th in stopping offenses on 4th down. St. Norbert and Monmouth have split 16 of the last 17 MWC football titles.
Rose-Hulman not official in HCAC, but...
After huge back-to-back wins over then-nationally-ranked Franklin 23-22 and last Saturday against Bluffton 42-19, the Fightin' Engineers (7-2, 6-1 in HCAC) go into their bye week before facing winless Earlham for the HCAC title. Rose-Hulman still cannot claim the conference's playoff spot because a loss coupled with Franklin (6-2, 5-1) beating Hanover in its annual Victory Bell game could still give the Grizzlies the league crown. If Rose-Hulman does win, it will tie Franklin for the HCAC crown and break the Grizzlies' six-year hold on the automatic playoff bid, thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Game of the Week 2: Aurora (5-3, 4-0) at Lakeland (5-3, 3-1)
Aurora managed to stay undefeated in the NACC by edging Concordia (Wis.) 20-19 last week to remain on top of the league standings. Now come its two toughest contests, beginning with defending conference champion Lakeland on the road this Saturday. Next Saturday, the Spartans close out their season playing Benedictine (5-3, 3-1). Both games should have huge implications on the conference title and could lead to another tiebreaker system that I will try to explain next week if need be.