|In just nine games this
season, Wabash linebacker CJ Gum has 77 total tackles, nine and a
half of them for loss.
Wabash athletics photo by Howard Hewitt
By Jason Bailey
Nothing slows Wabash senior linebacker CJ Gum, certainly not a piece of yellow fabric.
And Gum responded ferociously after he was flagged for a late hit in the Little Giants’ 38-20 first-round playoff victory over Illinois College. He blew up one run in the backfield, stuffed another at the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble after chasing down a receiver on successive plays.
Gum doesn’t limit his big hits to ballcarriers, later accelerating to knock an offensive lineman on his butt. As the Wabash sideline exploded in cheers, he responded by pulling down his right hand through the brisk air like a conductor sounding a train whistle.
“The ‘Pain Train’ is something we joke about,” said Gum, who sported large swaths of eye black, a buzzed Mohawk and tribal tattoo on his right bicep. “It just has to do with being physical. We take pride in going out there and hitting people.”
There will be plenty of hitting Saturday when Wabash (11-0, 6-0 NCAC) hosts North Central (10-1, 7-1 CCIW) in a second-round battle of conference champions. The Little Giants are limiting opponents to 10.9 points and the Cardinals have allowed 11.1 points per game. Both shut down offenses averaging more than 40 points in the first round, with North Central routing Dubuque 59-13.
The North Central defense has rebounded after giving up 35 points in a season-opening loss to Redlands, allowing only 34 combined points in seven conference games. Head coach John Thorne said the team values its three shutouts, blocking a field goal against a winless North Park team to preserve the feat.
“It’s really, really fun for defensive guys when at the end of the game you can look up there and see an extremely low score or a big zero,” Thorne said. “They have to stay focused every single play because it only takes one play. You make one little mistake, and there can be a score.”
Wabash could be susceptible to mistakes with only three senior starters, but Gum fills an important leadership role — he fittingly stands on the bench during offensive possessions, allowing his teammates to look up to him. The two-time NCAC defensive player of the year directs on-field traffic before the snap, but often takes matters into his own hands. His team-leading 77 tackles are typically bone-crunching affairs.
Wheaton head coach Mike Swider knows good defenses.
He sent two defensive players to the NFL, plays North Central annually and has regular preseason scrimmages against Wabash. Because the Thunder have lost to Mt. Union six times in the playoffs, it’s high praise for Swider to suggest North Central’s defense is nearing the Purple Power:
“They’ve got depth and they’ve got speed. Every single kid on the team can run. … Here’s the biggest thing that you’ve got to do. You cannot get penalized, because once you get in long yardage, it’s over. So you’ve got to be good on first down, and that’s the critical, critical down. Once they get you in any bad situation, they just overwhelm you. … Those three defensive linemen — (Valente) Garza, (Willie) Hayes and (Peter) Bulandr — they’re fast, they get up field. They’ve got depth. They’re all good, and they all can run. They play with an edge. … They’ve got a good shot [in the playoffs]. When you can play defense and special teams, you’ve got a shot to beat anybody. And that’s what they do. … In our conference, they’ve dominated this year like few have ever dominated.”
The Little Giants rally around those big hits and the “Pain Train” moniker adapted from Reebok commercials showcasing Terry Tate, the office linebacker. In the playoff opener, freshman linebacker Cody Buresh’s blast injured a wide receiver, freshman cornerback Houston Hodges broke up a third-down pass and junior safety Jonathon Koop delivered a punishing blow that drew a questionable penalty for launching.
“We’re playing fast and hitting people,” said Wabash defensive coordinator BJ Hammer, a former Little Giant defensive lineman himself. “I’ll never tell our guys to slow down, but of course we say to play smart.”
North Central boasts speed at every defensive position, substituting liberally to keep players fresh and aggressive when they re-enter the game. Eight players have at least two interceptions and four players have at least 5.5 sacks on a unit that doesn’t rely on a star player. Seven starters were named to the all-CCIW first team — including senior defensive tackle Peter Bulandr, the conference’s defensive player of the year and a Gagliardi Trophy finalist — and two made the second team.
“Last year it was easy to gameplan against us because there was one standout player, [linebacker] Matt Wenger, who was our Superman,” Bulandr said. “Our defense now has 11 Supermen. It’s impossible to gameplan for all 11 of us.”
Both teams realize winning the battles of field position, penalties and turnovers will become even more important in Saturday’s game, where the wind might play a factor.
If points are at a premium, it wouldn’t be surprising if the outcome swings on a return touchdown. The Little Giants have blocked eight kicks, returning two punts for touchdowns, and senior wide receiver Wes Chamblee has scored on three punts and one kickoff. North Central tied the Division III record by scoring on six interception returns.
“That’s the beauty of playing defense,” Bulandr said. “We have the ability to score and to prevent the other team from scoring. We love knowing that we control our own destiny.”