November 26, 2010

Second round has big showdowns

Josh Ostrue, Colin Tobin
Josh Ostrue leads the way for Colin Tobin, who rushed for 154 yards for St. Thomas in the first-round win against Benedictine.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com

By Brian Hunsicker
for D3sports.com

If D3football.com’s rankings are to be believed, a quarter of Saturday’s matchups shouldn’t happen until December. But rankings are no factor when the selection committee pieces together its bracket; thus, a pair of No. 1 seeds face unusually difficult tests this weekend.

St. Thomas and North Central, both top seeds in their respective corners of the Division III football bracket, face teams that, like themselves, are also ranked in the top 10 in D3football.com’s latest poll. The Tommies, ranked fourth, host eighth-ranked Linfield; the No. 5 Cardinals entertain Ohio Northern, ranked seventh.

“It’s been my experience in this profession not to be surprised by anything,” St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said this week. “You have two unbelievable teams meeting in the second round. And for one of those teams, their journey is going to end on Saturday.”

Of this weekend’s eight games, only one other features two teams ranked in the top 10: No. 10 Thomas More at No. 6 Mary Hardin-Baylor.

The mantra for teams at this time of year is that every opponent is tough; but for the Tommies and Cardinals, these challenges are a bit tougher than would normally be expected. Caruso raved about several aspects of the Wildcats’ team. North Central coach John Thorne had high praise for the Polar Bears’ ability to limit turnovers and, defensively, stiffen in the red zone.

Indeed, the battle of turnovers could go a long way in determining who wins the Cardinals-Polar Bears game.

“They run the ball well, and their quarterback [senior Kyle Simmons] has grown into their new offense, and he takes care of the ball,” Thorne said. And not only do Simmons and the ONU offense take care of the ball, the Polar Bears’ defense is adept at creating turnovers – their +1.73 turnover margin ranks fourth in Division III. North Central isn’t far behind, ranking 18th nationally in that same category.

Matt Wenger
Matt Wenger was one of several key North Central players who got their own bye week, sitting out the regular-season finale against North Park.
North Central (Ill.) athletics photo by Steve Woltmann

And, to Thorne’s other point, ONU was also the most effective running team in the OAC – 26th nationally – at 215.6 yards per game. If any team is up to stopping them, North Central and its 3rd-ranked run defense would be a prime candidate. In their first-round win, the Cardinals limited St. Norbert to 2.6 yards per rush, just above their season average of 1.8 yards per rush.

While the numbers and the homefield advantage seem to favor North Central, the Cardinals have had their own set of challenges this week. Players took their final exams for the fall semester Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; Thanksgiving further complicated preparations.

In some ways, the Cardinals’ preparations have gone as good as could have been expected. To make a deeper run into the postseason, Thorne and his coaches mapped out ways to ensure the Cardinals would be healthy when playoff time arrived. North Central’s increased depth allowed them greater rotation throughout the season, and Thorne was more liberal about playing time for reserves. Even during close games, it wasn’t unusual to see the team’s standout players on the sideline.

“No one had amazing stats,” Thorne said, “but we all decided to what was best for the team and not worry about individual stats.”

While ONU faces a five-or-so hour drive to Naperville, Ill., the travel arrangements will be much more complicated for Linfield. The Wildcats have the longest trip of the weekend, traveling two time zones east to the Twin Cities. Caruso identified it as one of the Tommies’ biggest advantages.

“It’s not just the familiar surroundings, it’s the homefield crowd and that your preparation can use the entire week and [the players] can sleep in their own beds,” Caruso said.

Homefield advantage aside, the Tommies will still have to cope with Linfield’s prolific offense; the matchup with St. Thomas’ defense will be one of the most anticipated aspects of the game. Linfield’s scoring offense and total offense rank 12th or better nationally; conversely, the Tommies’ total defense and scoring defense have similarly lofty ranks (sixth in scoring, 14th in total defense).

Caruso was particularly concerned about Wildcats quarterback Aaron Boehme, a senior, calling him “one of the finest quarterbacks in the country.” A dual threat, Boehme is the Wildcats’ second-leading rusher who has completed 60 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions; he’s 15th in the country in total offense.

Boehme brings an accomplished, talented squad to St. Thomas, just as Simmons will do for his Polar Bear teammates against North Central. Both are matchups that – at least according to one set of rankings – should’ve happened in a week or two. But in 2010, that’s just the way the bracket breaks.

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