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The long road back

More news about: Rose-Hulman
Freshman Andrew Dion knows he has big shoes to fill, but continues improving through three games.
Photo by Shannon Sullivan

 

By Clyde Hughes
D3sports.com

One of the hardest things to do for a football program after advancing to the playoffs for the first time in school history is, well, doing it all over again.

That's the challenge facing Rose-Hulman (2-1, 1-0 in conference), the HCAC co-champs and playoff representatives last year. The Fightin' Engineers took their first step to defending their title last Saturday, rallying from a halftime deficit at home to defeat Hanover 38-28.

In fact, coach Jeff Sokol said that his squad is focused on what is going on right now instead of feeling the pressure of last season.

"We don't talk much about defending titles," Sokol said. "This team lives very much in the present and is focused on getting off to a great start academically, while preparing the best we can for each opponent we face."

Last year, the Engineers reached their goal behind the play of three-year starter Austin Swenson at quarterback, who left the school with numerous single-game, season and career records. Sokol has turned over the keys of the offense to freshman Andrew Dion.

The signal-caller from San Diego has been helped by a veteran wide receiver corps and experience along the offensive line. Saturday was Dion's best game yet, completing 20 of 35 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns.

"Senior receivers Zack Murphy and Raymond Burtnick have made a lot of plays for us," Sokol said. "Offensive lineman Parker Young is a great leader for our team and has played very well. Senior tight end Michael Iacono is a great player. Andrew Dion has really done a nice job of learning our system as quickly as he can while balancing his transition to life at Rose-Hulman."

Breaking in a rookie quarterback is eased by the presence of leaders like Michael Iacono.
Rose-Hulman athletics photo by Michael Lanke

Even though Rose-Hulman's defense has given up 29.3 points per game so far, Sokol said the numbers are a bit misleading and the veterans are meshing with the newcomers well. The Fightin' Engineers recorded six sacks last Saturday against Hanover.

"We have given up more points, but our defense has also been put it some pretty difficult circumstances throughout these first three games," Sokol said. "We didn't lose many starters from last year’s defense, but the couple guys we lost were great players.

"The new guys are getting better every week, but overall our defense has played well. We have a great group of linebackers including senior Kaelen Garner. Alec Thompson leads our secondary, and Mike Riley has really stepped up on our defensive line.”

Rose-Hulman's lone loss came at the hands of 2-0 Millikin of the CCIW after losing the lead in the second half. Sokol believes that made the Engineers a better team.

"We really played pretty well against Millikin," Sokol said. "Offensively we had some critical turnovers in the red zone and had to settle for some field goals, but our players know the importance of ball security and finishing.

"Defensively we gave up some explosive plays late in the game, but Millikin has good players too. Our guys competed hard, but that night it just wasn’t enough. We correct our mistakes every week regardless of the result. We became a better team after Millikin because we corrected mistakes we made.”

While 2016 is not a topic Rose-Hulman wants to revisit during the 2017 season, make no mistake the Fightin’ Engineers want to make it back to the playoffs after getting their first taste of the postseason a year ago.

"Anything less than making the playoffs would be disappointing," Sokol said. "Our players have set a goal to reach the playoffs, but they won’t get excited about making them until we have earned it on the field."

Concordia-Chicago off to 2-0 start

Is this the year for Concordia-Chicago? While one cannot tell much from a 2-0 start, the Cougars have not started a season 2-0 since 2012 when they went 10-1 the won the old Northern Athletics Conference title. They were the NACC's lone winner in the MIAA-NACC Challenge Series last week, beating Kalamazoo 41-29.

Quarterback Shane Virnala has been a big part of that success, completing 34 of 58 passes last week for 371 yards and four touchdowns. Ryan Allison caught 13 of those passes for 183 yards and three scores. Virnala is averaging 290 yards passing per game.

Concordia-Chicago also played and defeated a club team.

While every game counts, Concordia-Chicago's fate will not be determined until they play the conference's toughest opponents in succession near the end of the season – Concordia (Wis.) on Oct. 21 and Benedictine on Oct. 28, both at home in River Forest, Ill., and defending NACC champions Lakeland on the road Nov. 4. 

Elephant in the room

The felony charges against five players at Wheaton College were addressed on D3football.com on Monday. Wheaton is a perennial Division III power and is coming off of a national quarterfinals appearance in 2016, losing to eventual national champion Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Thunder athletics communications director Brett Marhanka said on Tuesday that the college's official statement released on Monday will stand for the athletic department and there will be no further comment at this time.   

Wheaton, ranked No. 4 in country (3-0), will play at Elmhurst on Saturday. School officials told the Chicago Tribune Tuesday that the five players – James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Noah Spielman, Benjamin Pettway, and Samuel TeBos – have been suspended from practices and games. They were all charged Monday with aggravated battery, mob action, and unlawful restraint, according to the Tribune

Kregel turned himself in to the police Tuesday and posted bail while the other four were expected to do the same this week, noted press reports.

Games to watch

Monmouth (1-1) at Macalester (2-0), 2 p.m. – Macalester has been in the Midwest Conference for four years, and yet this will be the first time they will play Monmouth in league play. The battle of the Scots will feature the defending MWC champions (Monmouth) against the squad that is trying to recapture the momentum that won it the league title in its very first year. Monmouth, which is trying to win back-to-back MWC titles for the first time since the 2008-09 seasons will be trying to bounce back after its first loss of the season to Wartburg.

Lakeland (1-1) at No. 13 UW-Platteville (2-0), 7 p.m. – Lakeland is coming off of a disappointing loss to Hope in the MIAA-NACC Challenge Series but they will not have time to lick their wounds against the tough Pioneers. A good showing could help the Muskies build momentum, and quite frankly the conference, which really took it on the chin last week, going 1-6 against the MIAA. Also, it would be interesting to see if one of the best offensive weapons in Division III football, Lakeland quarterback Michael Whitley can do against a top flight team like UW-Platteville in his senior year. Whitley is averaging 425 yards passing per game in his first two contests, including six touchdowns and no interceptions.

Player to watch

Nicco Stepina, QB, Millikin – The junior is averaging 392.5 yards in total offense per game, seventh-best in the nation. Stepina already has a big win under his belt in a 28-26 victory over defending HCAC champion Rose-Hulman Sept. 9, helping the Big Blue to a 2-0 start. In the Rose-Hulman game, Stepina passed for 362 yards and three touchdowns. The signal-caller will have his hands full this Saturday and he will try to duplicate that number against No. 5 North Central at home.

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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