DePauw's celebration not yet complete

Imagine yourself being in a parking lot in Indiana about 30 to 40 minutes west of Indianapolis on last Saturday. Forty to fifty people huddle around a laptop computer while sharing a postgame tailgate celebration.

Their team, the DePauw Tigers, has clinched a share of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference with a 34-23 victory over Austin College just an hour or so earlier. But the celebration is not yet complete.

The Tigers have shared a SCAC title before. Back in 2005, they finished 5-0 in the SCAC, tied with Trinity. But a hurricane canceled their trip to San Antonio in late September and the Tigers at 7-2 stayed home at playoff time, while 9-0 Trinity earned the conference’s automatic bid by virtue of a better overall record. Never mind that DePauw’s loses were to a semifinal bound 9-1 Wesley by five and an unbeaten Wabash at 10-0.

And just last season, the Tigers, at 8-2, were probably one of teams left on the board when the final discussion took place on who would get the last of the at large bids (Pool C). But despite a 36-15 victory over No. 3-ranked Wabash in the season finale, again, DePauw stayed home.

So now, back in the parking lot, Tiger players, coaches, administrators, parents and fans knew that even a victory next week against Wabash in the annual Monon Bell game to finish at 8-1 and a second SCAC co championship could guarantee them nothing playoff wise. DePauw could still being staying home.

So to know their fate, the Tiger faithful will have to wait. Wait for the result of the Centre/Trinity game in San Antonio more than 1,100 miles away. (Can we really be rooting for Trinity? There’s some irony for you.)

Centre holds most of the tie-breaking advantages in the SCAC race that also includes Millsaps, who has already clinched a share of the crown but whom the Tigers have already beaten. The Colonels, however, beat DePauw in the SCAC opener 34-24 back in September.

DePauw fans waited for the good news from San Antonio.

So as they seconds tick down in the Texas Tigers 27-17 victory over Centre, a wave of euphoria sweeps the parking lot of remaining tailgaters in Greencastle or is it relief? It’s both. At any rate, DePauw is in the playoffs for sure this time. And it’s the first time.

“We’ve been so close a couple years,” said quarterback Spud Dick. “To finally get over that hump and take the next step as a program was something that we talked about here for a long time. It was really great to be able to accomplish it.”

The significance was not lost on interim coach Robby Long either.

“It means a lot, not only to the guys on this team, but to the guys that have come through here and paved the way,” Long said. “I am extremely proud of this group and the way they’ve fought through adversity.”

It was a great feeling after the game to know that we had clinched at least a share of the conference championship and then to find out an hour and a half later that we’re in the dance was a great feeling.

DePauw entered the season as the odds-on favorite in the SCAC, but the program had to overcome a couple of early season setbacks along the way this season. The first was an unexpected head coaching change just a week before training camp began when Matt Walker resigned. The school promoted Long, in his third season as the defensive coordinator and fifth overall, into the head role on an interim basis. Not an easy job on short notice.

“I approached it as ‘I’ve got to do everything that I can possibly do to put this team in the best situation to have success,” Long said. “The weight of the situation didn’t ever really hit me, I just focused on what I had to do on a daily basis to get this team ready.”

And after a successful season and a first-ever appearance in the NCAA playoffs, you might think that the powers that be at DePauw would be ready to remove that interim tag from his job title. But for Long, in all honestly, he really hasn’t had the time to think about it.

“It’s never really been an issue for me,” said Long, a former defensive lineman at Illinois in his playing days. “I’m focused on getting ready for the next opponent.”

So despite the coaching change, the Tigers entered the season with high expectations and the preseason favorite in the SCAC. They returned Dick at quarterback along with 16 other starters, including a veteran corps of receivers.

“I’d lie if I told you that we didn’t expect to become champions,” Dick said of the team attitude at the start of the season. “That was our goal and everybody was really buying into it.”

But Long knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“Coaches always have a little different view of things,” he said. “There are always concerns.

“I knew going into this thing that replacing three offensive linemen up front, and while we were pretty sure that the guys that we had stepping in were the right guys. We didn’t know how quickly they were going to develop and how quickly that whole thing was going to come together. There were questions there and there were questions on defense at the linebacker and safety positions. I knew that we had a lot of work to do to get where we are now.”

So after burying Anderson 55-7 in the opener, confidence was high heading into the SCAC opener against Centre. That quickly came crashing down to earth as the Colonels built an early lead and downed the Tigers 34-24 in Greencastle.

“To go out and play the way we did against Centre it was really a huge let down,” Dick said of the loss. “It was a slap in the face, but looking back on it. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to us.

“It gave me a new appreciation for how much it takes to prepare to get a victory. We learned that you’re not just going to walk out there and win. We used that loss as motivation and a springboard to push us through the rest of the season.”

Long echoed the sentiments of his quarterback and worked on getting his team refocused.

“The Centre game taught us a lesson as a football team and as a program, he said. “It taught me a lesson as a coach. We did not prepare well enough to win that football game.

“Centre is a great team and a great program. I don’t want to take anything away from them because they beat us on the field, that’s all that matters. But the great thing is our kids learned from that and came to work every week since then. That’s been a big part of why we’ve had the success we’ve had this year.”

Making matters worse was that Dick suffered a concussion during the loss and was out for next week too. The Tigers slogged through the slop and rain the next week without their leader to defeat Sewanee 3-0.

But Dick returned the following week with one of his finest performances. The Tigers knocked off defending conference champ Millsaps 29-27 with the senior passing for 372 yards and completing 28-of-34 passes with three touchdowns. DePauw was back on track.

“He’s a very special young man,” Long said of his four-year starter.  Not only is he a good football player, he’s a great leader.

“He’s grown into a guy who ever body respects and everybody trusts. On the field he does a great job putting us in great situations. He’s cool under pressure and makes us a better football team. He’d be the first to tell you that he can’t do it without the guys around him. He feeds off of that approach.”

For the season, Dick has completed more than 72 percent of his passes while passing for 2,087 yards with 21 touchdowns and just six interceptions. With at least two games remaining he should top the 9000-yard mark for his career.

And he just keeps getting better. During his first two seasons, he completed just under 60 percent of his passes. Over the past two years, his completion percentage is just a little under 70. He currently ranks eighth in D-III in passer rating.

“It’s gone by in the blink of an eye,” Dick said of his college career. “Going back to my freshman year coming in, I wanted to the starter. I was thrust into the second game and looking as I look at some of the freshmen now, I get a really get a true appreciation for how big of a task that was. I didn’t succeed by any means.

“But offensive coordinator Dustin Ward has done a great job bringing me along as a student of the game. That’s really been one of the keys by success over the past couple of years, to be able learn the defense and know the offense inside and out.”

So now, with a playoff berth finally secured, DePauw must focus again entering their yearly clash with Wabash for the Monon Bell.

Long has played in some of the biggest football venues in the country as a former Big Ten defensive lineman, including the Sugar Bowl against LSU. But the intensity of this rivalry compares with anything seen on the Division I level.

 “The difference is the number of people in the stands,” he said. “The thing that is special about this game is what it means to both sides. I don’t think that Ohio State and Michigan fan and alums think about each other all year long, but that’s the case with this rivalry.

“As a coach you fight to keep your team focused on the conference games because all they ever hear about from the alums and their parents is Wabash. It is as fierce as I’ve ever seen. It is the greatest rivalry in college football as far as I am concerned.”

The two rivals enter Saturday’s game evenly matched once again. The series is tied at 53-53-9 after the Tigers have won the last two years. The game will be broadcast on HDNet starting at 1 pm. EST.

“Monon week, to people that haven’t been in it, is something that is totally different than the rest of the season,” Dick said. “You try to prepare for it like a normal game in terms of the X’s and O’s and preparation, but the aura around the game is totally different.”

“It’s the one week where you get to feel like you’re a Division I player. Three or four media interviews a day, pep rallies, the game is on national television, the newspapers come over from Indianapolis to practice. There’s so much more that’s added to the game. It means so much to so many people, not just on campus, but alumni and around the community.

Part of the challenge for Long as rookie head coach is to make sure they keep doing the things that go them to this point.

“They are fired up,” Long said. “Part of preparing them to win this game is that we can’t get over emotional on Tuesday.

“We got to come and prepare the way we have all season long. Is this a more intense environment obviously, are the stakes higher---yes. But at the same time you can’t let it get out of hand and become a negative. We’ve got to get ready to play before all the emotion and those things start pouring into it.”

Wabash enters the game fighting for its playoff life at 8-1. Wittenberg knocked the Little Giants off 10-7 on Oct. 17 and went on to the automatic bid from North Coast Athletic Conference. During the last two years, it was the Little Giants that entered the game with their playoff status secured.

“It’s something where you can’t have a letdown,” Dick said. “I don’t think we will. I think the guys are really focused.

“That’s something we haven’t had the last past couple years. That’s something we have to guard against. Wabash the last two years has had that guaranteed game. The roles have kind of switched.”

Oh by the way, if you’re wondering where Dick, whose given name is Gerry, like his father and grandfather, got his nickname. He reports that he has had it since at just a few days old. At an extended family gathering, the beer commercial that featured Spuds McKenzie came on and an uncle suggested it. The name has stuck.

Around the South playoff possibilities

Mississippi College looks likely to clinch its first Division III playoff bid this weekend when they host Texas Lutheran. The Bulldogs have yet to win this season and coach Dennis Parker resigned effective the end of the season.

Mary Hardin-Baylor looks likely to earn a at large (Pool C) bid if it can beat Sul Ross State (2-7.)

Huntingdon (8-1) should take home a Pool B bid, reserved for independents and conferences without an AQ, after beating Birmingham-Southern 59-28. The Hawks, who are scoring points at ridiculous rates, after scoring more than 50 for the third time in four games. They finish on Thursday night against Southern Alabama, who will be moving into Division I FCS status in a couple of years.

Contact info

You can reach me at jason.bowen@capital.k12.de.us, Conrad on Post Patterns or on Facebook at Facebook.com/jasonbowen3

Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com and wrote Around the Great Lakes for D3football.com from 2012-14. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

2014 columnist: Justin Goldberg
2013 columnist: Andee Djuric
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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