By Jason Bailey
|Wheaton (Ill.) scored on the last play of the game
to defeat Bethel last season, and it hasn't been
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com
It wasn’t any easier to stomach on video.
A Bethel pass-rusher leaps over a running back’s attempted block. The Wheaton quarterback scrambles right as four defenders converge. A flick of the wrist, an athletic catch in the end zone and the Thunder beat the Royals 29-26 on a 5-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play.
“Looking at that kind of makes you sick knowing that you let it slip away based on not doing the right thing,” Bethel linebacker Ross Petterson said. “On that final pass, it just feels like you got punched in the gut, and you can’t even believe what happened.”
But don’t read too much into the dramatic ending of last year’s regular-season meeting between Wheaton and Bethel. When the teams meet again in a second-round playoff game Saturday, the past battles will mean little (Wheaton also edged Bethel 10-7 in a driving rainstorm in 2008).
“What it means is that we’re two very evenly matched
teams,” Wheaton coach Mike Swider said. “Both games
could have gone either way, and we realize that. We’re not
idiots. It’s a difference of one or two plays, and the
outcome is the other way.”
That small margin of error is why neither Wheaton (10-1, 6-1 CCIW) nor Bethel (10-1, 7-1 MIAC) are stuck in the past. Both teams earned Pool C bids to the postseason after losing to an undefeated conference champion (North Central and St. Thomas) that received a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. And now that there is a rare opportunity to reach the national semifinals without meeting UW-Whitewater or Mount Union, looking backward isn’t the best way to move ahead.
The real advantage of those previous matchups is knowing what to expect: A heavyweight fight.
In Bethel’s corner is Logan Flannery, who has 1,516 rushing yards -- his fourth consecutive season with more than 1,000 yards -- and 15 TDs in 11 games, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. The wrecking ball pounded Wheaton for 281 rushing yards in two games combined and is running behind an offensive line with four consistent starters since the start of last season. Bethel coach Steve Johnson isn’t hesitant to say Flannery is one of the best backs in the country.
“He has great vision. He’s really tough, and he’s not really that big, but I think he kind of surprises defenders how powerful he is,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to explain. I don’t think he could either. He’s just a running back who was born to run.”
Flannery, the MVP of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, was instrumental in Bethel’s 28-20 first-round playoff victory over Wartburg. He recorded 182 offensive yards, scored on the ground and in the air, and added a 2-point conversion for good measure. His attention, however, has quickly shifted to the latest installment of a “fun rivalry” with Wheaton.
“Their defense is good, and we have to stay poised and not get frustrated, because they’re going to make big plays and we’re going to make big plays,” Flannery said.
Wheaton has definitely had ups and downs. Despite a balanced attack led by quarterback Jordan Roberts -- four rushers and two receivers have more than 400 yards -- the dual threat has needed to deliver several stirring comebacks. The Thunder scored 24 unanswered points in the second half of a 31-24 regular-season victory over Carthage, then upped the ante by scoring 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat Coe 31-21 in the first round of the playoffs.
“We don’t give up. We can finish games. And we want it,” said linebacker Cory Hart, who started last week’s comeback with a crucial third-quarter interception. “We’re not the biggest, strongest, fastest athletes, but we’re a team and we play like we’re playing for something.”
That team effort includes a Thunder defense that has forced 35 turnovers and shut down several top running backs in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. Wheaton receiver Freddy Ellis said one message has been repeated clearly this season: “We are a physical football team, so let’s keep swinging and see if they can keep up with us for four quarters.”
There’s no doubt -- whatever team gets knocked out Saturday will know exactly what hit them.