November 5, 2010

St. Thomas making history

With their convincing 43-6 win over Gustavus Adolphus last Saturday, St. Thomas became the first team in the West Region – and the second team in the country – to clinch an automatic bid to the playoffs by winning the MIAC title.  The game itself was business as usual for UST: the Tommies racked up 228 yards rushing while holding Gustavus to just 197 yards overall.  Running back Ben Wartman scored the 45th touchdown of his career, tying him for first all-time in the St. Thomas record books.  And dynamic playmaker Fritz Waldvogel – so key to the Tommies’ breakthrough season a year ago – got into the action as well, scoring his first kick return touchdown of the year at the start of the second half.

Still, clinching the MIAC title is anything but usual for St. Thomas, who were just 2-8 the season before head coach Glenn Caruso took over prior to the 2008 season.  Since then, it’s been a rapid climb up the ladder for the Tommies, who went 7-3 Caruso’s first year, followed by 11-2 in 2009.  Now, St. Thomas is 9-0 for the first time in 87 years, has beaten archrival St. John’s in Collegeville for the first time in 23 years, and won the conference championship for the first time since Waldvogel was an infant.  That sense of history-making hasn’t been lost on Tommies.

“This has been a long time coming,” Waldvogel said in St. Thomas’ press release on the game.  “We’ve been breaking records, we beat St. John’s, we’re the first 9-0 team since 1923 and now we have won the conference title.  It’s all special.”

With only a down-on-their-luck Carleton squad standing between the Tommies and a perfect regular season, it’s a decent bet to pencil in UST as a team that’s going to be playing at home during the first couple playoff rounds.  What remains to be seen, however, is how long they’ll be hosting.  Right now, the No. 4 Tommies actually rank ahead of No. 1 Wisconsin-Whitewater in the regional rankings, but I’m still not convinced the selection committee will actually take the Tommies as a top seed over the Warhawks.  But with last weekend’s East Region carnage and the distinct possibility of No. 2 Mount Union moving to that bracket again, the Tommies could grab No. 1 in the West by default.

Is it Selection Sunday yet?

Speaking of conference champions …

One other West Region team clinched their conference title this week, and even if they won’t be going to the playoffs, the UMAC’s Greenville Panthers are still worth mentioning.  Greenville clinched the UMAC title with a convincing 51-20 victory against early-season favorite Crown, and they did it in style at the Metrodome.  The Panthers racked up 534 yards rushing, with Tahir Williams going off for 192 yards and four touchdowns on – get this – seven carries.  Greenville, now poised to run the table in the UMAC for the second year in a row, scheduled a tough non-conference slate this year, matching up against a pair of CCIW teams in Augustana and Millikan and visiting Albion – currently in second place in the MIAA.  Granted, the Panthers went 0-3 against those teams, but it’s encouraging to see UMAC squads increasing their level of competition in preparation for the conference’s automatic bid, which comes next year.

Back to the playoff watch

Up to three more automatic bids could be clinched this week.  In the WIAC, only UW-Oshkosh stands between top-ranked Whitewater and their fifth outright conference title in six years.  The Titans are no strangers to top-flight opposition, having lost by just a touchdown at No. 17 Central (see next paragraph) and pushing Mount Union in a 45-28 loss.  Still, the Warhawks, who are coming off an impressive win over a very good Stevens Point squad, should be able to dominate an Oshkosh team that just lost 20-14 to schizophrenic UW-Eau Claire.

Farther to the south, No. 13 Wartburg can make every Division III football fan’s life a bit simpler by defeating Central and claiming the IIAC title outright.  But if the Dutch can pull off the upset – the game is in Pella, after all – that would create a three-way logjam at the top of the conference.  Wartburg would still take the autobid, but the ensuing Pool C chaos could be crazy.  Check out my October 21 column if you want more details.

Out on the Pacific coast, No. 12 Linfield should be able to clinch back-to-back NWC championships for the first time since 2004-05 with a victory against struggling Whitworth.  Since their season-opening loss at Cal Lutheran, the Wildcats have been simply spectacular, averaging over 43 points per game while giving up just over a touchdown.  One player to watch: senior defensive end Eric Hedin.  Hedin is attempting to redefine the word “monster,” with 52 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, and (hey, why not?) a blocked kick through seven games.

Under the radar game of the week

Occidental (4-3, 3-1 SCIAC) vs. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (5-2, 2-2).  Oxy has been a consistent SCIAC contender for a number of years, but their season has been in disarray ever since longtime head coach Dale Widolff was suspended for the first four games of the season due to NCAA rules violations.  Last week, the Tigers dropped a close one to unheralded Chapman, and they’ve been blown out by Menlo and Redlands.  Still, they’re just a game and a half back from conference leaders Cal Lutheran, and a win over the upstart Stags on Saturday would put Oxy in prime position to play spoiler in week 11, where a victory would knock CLU into the highly turbulent waters of Pool C.

Don’t leave your seats

If you listened to Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan’s Around the Nation podcast on Monday (and if you didn’t, you absolutely should), you heard Keith talk about some of the more interesting halftime contests he’s seen.  I’ll chime into that discussion with one that I saw just last weekend at Whitworth: a field goal contest between six professors.  Only two of the six profs made the 25ish-yard chip shot, though to be fair, the ground was slick from intermittent rain.  But the real credit here goes to the Pirates’ outstanding public address man, communications professor Michael Ingram, for providing exceptional commentary on his colleagues’ kicking skills (or lack thereof).

Contact Me!
For only the second time this year, I’ll be returning to my alma mater this weekend for what promises to be an extremely entertaining Wagon Wheel Game.  But I’ll be keeping an eye on other West Region matchups, too.  Please join me – and others – 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.

Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith has covered Division III sports for more than five years. He writes for multiple publications, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and lives in southern Wisconsin near UW-Whitewater, where he graduated 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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