|Matt Barrett and the Green Knights defense have given up just 50 points during their seven-game winning streak.
Kylie Bridenhagen, d3photography.com
By Clyde Hughes
Dan McCarty does not have to search hard to find motivation for his St. Norbert Green Knights when they take to the road to battle rival Monmouth in the Midwest Conference championship game on Saturday.
All he has to do is refer to the last time the two teams played on Nov. 5, 2016. The MWC did not have a championship game that season but it was the closest thing to one – until the game started. Monmouth scored touchdowns on its first three drives of the first quarter for a 21-0 lead and cruised to a 38-14 win.
The Scots walked away with the MWC title and its automatic bid into the playoffs without really being challenged. McCarty said he believes his players want to change that this time around.
"They got the best of us last year and our guys haven't forgotten about that," McCarty said this week. "We use it as motivation. They're a good football team. But we feel like we have some unfinished business to take care of. It's going to take a tremendous game."
St. Norbert and Monmouth have figured in 17 of the last 18 MWC championships and this year will not be different. While the Green Knights enter the game 7-2, Monmouth will enter Zorn Memorial Stadium 8-1 with its only loss to No. 18 and undefeated Wartburg (36-13).
After losing its first two games of the season, St. Norbert has reeled off seven straight, using a stifling defense that has limited opponents to three rushing touchdowns all seasons and hasn’t allowed an opponent to score in double digits since September.
|Senior captain Ben Kornowski is at the center of the stifling defense.
Kylie Bridenhagen, d3photography.com
"Defensively, it's been a consistent performance all season long," McCarty said. "We've played with a ton of confidence. We're deep in the defensive line and that allows us to limit a team's rushing yards while putting pressure on the quarterback. We have a lot of talent over there and those guys are playing some pretty good football."
McCarty pointed to senior inside linebacker Ben Kornowski as one of the big leaders with 31 tackles. Matt Barrett, an all-MWC selection a year ago, leads the Green Knights in tackles with 52 and Matt Gurgone has two blocked kicks to go with 42 tackles.
"Ben Kornowski is a senior captain for us and a lot of guys tend to rally around him," McCarty said. "He has a lot of experience and leadership and has got a lot of games under his belt.”
McCarty said defensive backs Hunter Prokash and Sam Koss answered the Green Knights' biggest question area at the beginning of the season. Prokash has picked off three passes this season and has five pass breakups, while Koss has two interceptions.
"They were both high school teammates [at Algoma High School] and they stepped right into starting positions and took up where the other guys we had last year left off," McCarty said. "They're really playing well and really making a difference."
McCarty has rotated six players along his defensive line, which has allowed them to stay not only fresh, but pretty healthy going into Saturday's game. Kordell Draves leads the team with six sacks and 8.5 tackles for losses.
"Kordell has made the most out of his opportunities," McCarty said. "It has been nice to see how they have played selfless football. Everybody wants to play every down, but we have made our defensive line our strength by keeping them fresh. Having those guys healthy at this point of the season is a huge plus for us."
Offensively, sophomore wide receiver Sterling Staehling has become a real standout. He caught three touchdowns last week giving him 25 career touchdown receptions in 18 games, the third best mark in school history. He has 16 on the season.
Staehling has two more years to catch career touchdown reception leaders Mike Whitehouse (37, 1986-89) and Joe Green (27, 2009-12).
"He came into the season as the conference's newcomer of year as a freshman," McCarty said. "He came in as a running back. He really didn't move until wide receiver at the end of training camp and didn't play that much. I asked at the end of last season if he wanted to move back to running back but it seemed like he was pretty happy at wide receiver, which is what I expected."
Jack Becker continued to lead St. Norbert at quarterback with an offense that's averaging 400 yards a game while Elijah Fort is averaging 84 rushing yards per contest. They are going against a Monmouth defense that is surrendering only half of that (205 yards) per game.
"Our key is being patient," McCarty said. "We have to understand this is a championship and it's okay to go three-and-out. Their defense is very good and so is ours. It's going to come down to being smart with the football and making plays when they present themselves and I'm hoping our guys will."
From McCarty's perspective, St. Norbert has unfinished business Saturday against Monmouth.
Illinois Wesleyan continues to build resumé
While No. 9 North Central (8-1, 6-1 in CCIW) can clinch the conference's automatic playoff bid with a win this week, No. 11 Illinois Wesleyan (8-1, 6-1) has built an impressive enough resumé to get an at-large bid, but still has to take care of business against a very good Millikin team (7-2, 5-2). The Titans opened the season with a win over UW-Whitewater, which was then ranked in the top five. Seeing the Warhawks climb back into the Top 25 this week at No. 23 allows the Titans to crow that they have beaten two of the three Top 25 teams they have played this season. That includes win over No. 22 Wheaton (14-10) and the loss to North Central (26-13). But two-loss teams rarely make the Division III playoffs, so despite the resumé, the Titans still need the Senior Day victory Saturday at Tucci Stadium to give them the best shot possible.
Illinois Wesleyan running back Morgan Alexander is averaging 98 yards per game with four 100-yard games to his credit this year while quarterback Branden Bauer is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes (145-248-6) and has thrown for 19 touchdowns. They will need their help against the Big Blue.
Franklin, Lakeland are in
While Franklin (7-2, 7-0 in HCAC) and Lakeland (7-2, 5-0 in NACC) still want to win their conference titles outright, they can relax a bit knowing that they own their conference's automatic playoff berth. Franklin, which missed the playoffs last year, will play at Hanover (4-5, 4-3) in the annual Victory Bell game while Lakeland finishes at home against Rockford (1-7, 1-4).
Game to Watch
St. Norbert (7-2) at Monmouth (8-1), 2 p.m.—It is really simple for the MWC's North Division champion St. Norbert and South Division champion Monmouth. Win, you're in the playoffs, lose and you start planning for the postseason football banquet. There's no in between.
Player to Watch
Spenser Thompson-Meyers, kicker, St. Norbert – In a battle between two highly touted defenses, Thompson-Meyers has the kind of leg that can win games. Thompson-Meyers kicked a 49-yard field goal last week and kicked a 55-yarder against Grinnell off a grass surface this season. He's made 11 of his 14 attempts and is perfect this season within 40 yards.
"We have a tremendous kicker," St. Norbert coach Dan McCarty said. "That might be a key in a game like this. When we watched the film, that 55-yarder would have been good from 60. When you see that the Packers only have five kicks of 55 yards or longer in their history, it really puts things into perspective."