October 21, 2010

Defense wins championships, but ...

More news about: Wartburg

Ever since opening weekend, when Wartburg made then-healthy preseason All-American Alex Tanney look worse than average, the story of the No. 13 Knights’ undefeated season has been their remarkable defense. As the saying goes, “defense wins championships,” and Wartburg’s current status as top dog in the IIAC would appear to justify it: The Knights lead the conference in pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, turnover margin, and sacks. They’ve pitched two shutouts, while holding two other teams to single scores.

But in the first half of last weekend’s first-place showdown at then-No. 6 Coe, a different hero stepped up: the Knights’ offense. After a nice return on the opening kickoff, Wartburg took nine plays to drive 59 yards in 4:17 to open the scoring on a Dan Stiefel touchdown pass. When Coe answered with a touchdown of their own, Stiefel directed the Knights on a 12-play, 71-yard drive that took 4:42 off the clock to reclaim the lead. A third drive consumed 4:25 as Wartburg drove 71 yards again, this time in nine plays. Touchdown.

By the end of the first half, the Knights had held the ball for over 19 minutes, and they’d hold it for 20 more in the second period, keeping the explosive Kohawk offense – an offense that burned preseason IIAC favorite Central two weeks ago – off the field.

Traditionally, Wartburg relies on a punishing running game to control the clock, and sophomore running backs Reese Thompson and Brandon Sims filled the bill perfectly, rushing for 157 and 110 yards, respectively, on a combined 55 carries. Stiefel did a masterful job of game-management, going 14-23 for 177 yards. Even more critically, the junior transfer didn’t throw a single interception.

“It was critical that we had ball possession … We did that with nearly 39 minutes,” head coach Rick Willis said in Wartburg’s press release. “We also couldn't afford turnovers, and the offense handled the football very well.”

To be fair, Wartburg’s entry into the national rankings is probably several weeks overdue, but the presence of two IIAC teams in the top 25 already – Coe and Central – kept the Knights out. That changed this week, but the question of whether or not the IIAC can sustain three ranked teams probably won’t be resolved until Wartburg tangles with Central in Pella on November 6. The result will have playoff implications that could shake up the entire Pool C field.

In the simplest scenario, Wartburg would beat Central and claim the IIAC crown. But what if the Knights get knocked off? That’s where it gets tricky.

Like some other conferences (the SCIAC, for example), three-way ties in the IIAC are decided by the so-called “Rose Bowl Rule,” which awards the conference’s automatic playoff bid to the team whose playoff absence has been the longest. So – bear with me now – let’s say that Central knocks off the Knights, setting up a scenario where Coe, Central, and Wartburg would be tied for first place. According to the “Rose Bowl Rule,” Wartburg, who had a run to the quarterfinals as recently as 2008, would take the autobid, since Coe and Central each made the playoffs last season. But with the Kohawks and Dutch each carrying a loss themselves, who would snap up a potential Pool C bid? Central clearly has the better regional record, since Coe played exactly zero nonconference Division III opponents. But the Kohawks have a decisive head-to-head win over the Dutch.

Is your head spinning yet?

Eau Claire lays an egg
I doubt many people were surprised that UW-Eau Claire lost to UW-Whitewater this week, but count me among those who were shocked at the way Eau Claire lost: a 45-0 drubbing where the Blugolds had four turnovers, six first downs, 150 yards of total offense, and ran exactly four plays inside Whitewater territory – plays that resulted in a fumble, an incomplete pass, a sack, and a punt.

Still, I tend to think that this is an indication of just how good the Warhawks are rather than how bad Eau Claire is. It’s true that in retrospect, the Blugolds’ record looks awfully shaky: they needed a 14-point scoring spree late in the fourth quarter to send their game against St. John’s into overtime, they fell 20-6 to North Central in a game that wasn’t even that close, and they got blown out by UW-Platteville the week prior to their game against Whitewater. But on the other hand, the amazing thing about the Warhawks is that they’ve been this dominant all season long.

Through six weeks, Whitewater has averaged 44.3 points per game while holding their opponents to just 6.3. They’ve allowed just 150 yards of total offense per game (42.2 yards rushing). They’re +10 in turnover margin. In every phase of the game, the Warhawks have been lightyears ahead of their competition – including Eau Claire.

Will this make Blugold fans feel any better? Probably not. But it’s the starkest illustration yet of just how far ahead Whitewater is from the rest of the WIAC.

Another UMAC classic
The UMAC doesn’t get a lot of national love, but boy do they have some exciting games. Case in point: last Saturday’s matchup between Minnesota-Morris (4-2, 4-1 UMAC) and Northwestern (1-5, 1-2). After trailing 20-14 at halftime, Minnesota-Morris put together three unanswered touchdown drives to take a 35-20 lead, mostly on the back of junior running back Todd Gramenz, who had 37 carries for 190 yards on the day. But Northwestern senior Cody Crum, who doubles as the Eagles’ kicker, took an end around 80 yards for a touchdown before the team scored again with just 56 seconds remaining. But the two-point conversion pass fell incomplete, and the Cougars recovered the ensuing onside kick.

Non-IIAC Bubble Watch
While the crazy IIAC is (rightfully) receiving the bulk of the Pool C speculation this week, here are a couple of other teams that could work their way back into the playoff discussion with a little help from other teams across the country. If any two-loss teams are considered, ponder these:

St. Olaf (4-2, 2-2 MIAC). While two losses usually take a team out of playoff consideration, the two that beat the Oles – No. 4 St. Thomas and No. 20 Bethel – stack up pretty well. Unlike fellow two-loss competitor Willamette (see below), the Oles haven’t exactly beaten anybody of note, but they’ll get the opportunity to do just that when they host still-dangerous St. John’s on Nov. 6.

Willamette (4-2, 2-1 NWC). After an embarrassing loss at No. 12 Linfield, the Bearcats have taken out their frustration on a pair of subpar opponents, Pacific and Puget Sound, notching two victories by a combined score of 121-28. Willamette’s other loss was a narrow road defeat to No. 8 Hardin-Simmons, and the Bearcats do have a decisive 33-14 road win over Stevens Point on their resume. They may even get another chance at a signature win when they travel to No. 22 Pacific Lutheran in week 11.

UW-Platteville (4-2, 2-1 WIAC). Why not throw the Pioneers into the playoff discussion? True, they haven’t had a winning season since 2004 and haven’t ever made the postseason, but Platteville pulled off one of the most impressive one-week turnarounds this year: blasting then-No. 17 Eau Claire 35-14 one week after getting pounded by No. 1 Whitewater. The Pioneers next snapped a 29-year losing streak to UW-La Crosse, and with their only losses to unbeaten teams (Whitewater and No. 17 Wheaton), who’s to say they couldn’t grab second place in the WIAC?

Game(s) of the Week
Some people look at the vast geography of the West as a disadvantage. I’d prefer to look at it as a terrific win for fans, since time zones make this the only region where a Division III fan can catch compelling football games at any time of day. Here are three matchups (conveniently spaced) that you should absolutely be following this Saturday:

No. 4 St. Thomas vs. No. 20 Bethel. In my very first column for D3football.com, I singled this out as a game to watch, though I wasn’t didn’t predict that it would decide the MIAC championship. The Tommies win games with their overwhelming offense, the Royals do it with their stingy defense. A St. Thomas win would clinch their first conference title since 1990.

No. 22 Pacific Lutheran vs. No. 12 Linfield. Longtime Northwest Conference fans have probably been having flashbacks all week to any number of outstanding Lutes/Wildcats matchups over the last forty years. Both schools have four national titles to their name, and together they own 48 conference championships. The upstart Lutes are 5-0 for the first time since 1997, while the Wildcats have been nothing short of dominant since a season-opening loss at California Lutheran.

Redlands vs. Occidental. The Bulldogs easily could have been placed in the “Bubble Watch” segment, since their lone defeat – a heartbreaking 24-22 loss to No. 23 Cal Lutheran – doesn’t look bad on an at-large resume by any means. But Redlands had to struggle to beat an upstart Claremont-Mudd-Scripps team last weekend, and they’ll face a huge hurdle this Saturday when they meet Occidental – a team the Bulldogs haven’t beaten since 2003.

Contact Me!
For the first time all year, I’ll be staying at home this weekend taking in as many games as I can over the web. Please chime in on the D3football.com Game Day blog, and if you see anything I might have missed or have any comments, suggestions, or story ideas, send me an e-mail at tim.walsh@d3sports.com.

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Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith covers high school and Division III athletics for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wis. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and contributes to multiple publications in addition to his duties at the Daily Union, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in print journalism.

2011-12 columns: Jason Galleske
2010: Tim Walsh
2003-09: Adam Johnson
1999-2000: Don Stoner 

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