It was supposed to be their moment.
In their sixth season, they had paid their dues, with just two losing seasons since the program began. And heck, those were the first two years. Huntingdon had played at some of Division III’s top programs tough: Wabash, Wittenberg, Trinity, Ithaca, Millsaps and Wesley.
And in 2008, it seemed that it had all come together for the Huntingdon football program. Here they were entering the final game of the season against LaGrange with an 8-1 record. A victory here likely would earn the program its first trip to the NCAA playoffs.
Sure, the Hawks had lost the previous week for the first time that season to Hampden-Sydney 38-34. But the Tigers had been in the playoffs a year earlier and looked likely to be heading back.
And sure, the Panthers had won eight of nine contests coming in, after losing the program’s first twenty games. But Huntingdon had trounced LaGrange by a combined score of 78-0 in the previous two meetings.
It was going to happen for the Hawks. You could just feel it.
But it didn’t.
The host Panthers walked out of Callaway Stadium in LaGrange last November 15 with a 27-17 victory, the Saint Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship and that precious Pool B NCAA playoff bid. Huntingdon got an hour and a half bus ride back down Interstate 85 to Montgomery. Game over. Season over.
Now, 50 weeks later, Huntingdon will get a second chance. And not surprisingly, it is the same team in LaGrange that is standing in the Hawks way once again.
“Coach Mooney and his staff do a fantastic job,” coach Mike Turk said on his weekly television show. “They’re kind of like us, they’re still fairly young in the process (of building a program.)
“They took it from us last year. They really stepped up to the plate and had a great season and whipped us at their place. This is game that we’ve been looking forward to for a year now.”
Last season’s 8-2 record may have been due in part to a weak schedule that included fellow members of the SLIAC. However, this season after the SLIAC stopped sponsoring football after two members dropped their programs; the Hawks were forced to take pretty much any opponent they could find after returning to independent status.
That’s made the road more difficult this year. A three-week stretch earlier this season included tough opponents in Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference contender UW-Oshkosh, America Southwest Conference contender Louisiana College and three-time defending Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference champion Millsaps. Huntingdon won two of these three games on the way to a 6-1 record.
The key to their success this season has been an explosive offense and an experienced senior-laden team. The offense currently ranks number in the nation in total yardage with an average of 533 yards a game. With a no huddle, spread attack, they are averaging nearly 38 points per game and running an average of 85 plays game. More plays, mean more opportunities. They’ve also done a great job staying on the field by converting an outrageous 53 percent of their third downs.
“One of the things that we do is try to play fast and not give the defense a chance to catch their breath,” Turk said.
The attack has also been balanced. Huntingdon is rolling up over 215 yards a game on the ground and nearly 320 yards through the air. Even in their 31-13 road loss to Oshkosh, they totaled over 450 yards.
Keying the unit is senior quarterback Justin Ridgeway, who is also a threat to run the ball. Ridgeway has passed for 2,184 yards and ran for 239. He has six receivers with 10 or more receptions. And they haven’t been your garden variety dink and dunk type passes. The whole receiving corps is averaging an astronomical 17 yards per catch.
A strong group of 20 seniors has also helped the Hawks bounce back from last season’s disappointment.
“It’s going to be hard to watch some of those guys go,” Turk said. “They’ve been good players for such a long time.
“Give this senior class a lot of credit. They were the first seniors that we played JV ball with. I really think that helped them to bond and we are reaping the benefits of that right now. Most of them started playing (varsity) as sophomores and we took some lumps that year because we were so young, but as they grew up, we got better.”
The defensive numbers haven’t been as impressive as the Hawks have given up nearly 400 yards a game, but they have forced 21 turnovers, including 15 interceptions. They were improved last week allowing 175 total yards in a 40-14 victory over Greenville.
They’ll face a LaGrange team that has righted itself after some early struggles. The Panthers have won four straight after starting the season 1-3. The game would probably have greater Pool B playoff implications; But LaGrange has region losses to Wesley (56-7) and Maryville (23-6.) The Maryville loss was especially disappointing as the Panthers led 6-0 at the half, but fell apart in a rainy second half.
Still if they can take down the Hawks again this season, and Huntingdon loses to Birmingham-Southern next week, they may have a shot to grab one of the three playoff bids reserved for independents and those conferences without an automatic qualifier for the champion.
The appetite for Division III in Georgia still appears to be high as witnessed in the photo forwarded to me by a LaGrange fan. The jersey of junior tackle Jon Milner, a D3football.com preseason All-American, has been placed on the statue of Revolutionary War hero Lafayette in the town square.
At any rate, the D-III version of the Alabama/Georgia border war between in should be a hard-fought, interesting game.
After this past weekend, there is still a logjam atop the SCAC standings with three teams, Centre, Millsaps and Depauw, still in the running for the title. Millsaps handed Centre their first loss of the season, while DePauw ended years of disappointment against Trinity by winning 26-18. There is a great discussion by Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan about the possible machinations and possibilities in this week’s Around the Nation Podcast. You can also find the tie breaker scenarios if you cruise on over to the SCAC board on Post Patterns.
Mississippi College and Mary Hardin-Baylor continued on a path
to the playoffs with victories a week after their epic matchup last
week gave the Choctaws the lead in the conference. UMHB is still
looking like a leading contender for an at large bid (Pool C) after
avenging their only loss of last season 21-0 over NAIA Southern
Oregon. Bryson Tucker returned to the backfield from the secondary
for the second straight season because of injuries and rushed for
Mississippi College pulled away after an early challenge to top East Texas Baptist 26-7. Quarterback Adam Shaffer passed for 260 yards and a touchdown, while linebacker Quartez Ashmore posted is second straight week of double digit tackles. The Choctaw defense has allowed just 21 points the past two weeks after allowing 191 through their first five games.
There were a lot of tremendous statistical performances in the ASC the past week.
McMurry junior wide receiver Marcus Franklin caught eight passes for 149 yards and had an ASC-record four touchdown receptions in a 36-23 road victory over Texas Lutheran. The Nation has won four straight has a week off before hosting cross town rival Hardin Simmons next week.
Howard Payne junior quarterback Zach Hubbard set a new ASC record by totaling 608 yards of total offense in a heart-breaking 51-45 loss to Louisiana College. Hubbard was 38 of 63 for 532 yards and five touchdowns passing, while also rushing for 77 yards and a score on 13 carries. His offensive yardage total breaks the old record set by former HPU signal caller Adam King (512 passing, 83 rushing) in the 2004 season. Hubbard’s total is also the highest in NCAA Division III this season and the second-highest among any NCAA level. His passing yardage was just one shy of tying the ASC record. Louisiana College quarterback Ben McLaughlin also passed for 400 yards in the contest.
A pair of freshmen also made their mark. Texas Lutheran defensive end Chris Kyle tied a conference record with four sacks and McMurry punter John Kowalski averaged over 52 yards on five punts and currently leads ASC with a 47.4 average.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, Conrad on Post Patterns or on Facebook at Facebook.com/jasonbowen3. Thanks to the Milner family for forwarding me the statue picture. It was nice to meet you in September. I’m home for the second straight week! I’ll be broadcasting the “Route 13 Rivalry” between Wesley and Salisbury.