November 30, 2011

Putting the clipboard down

More news about: Mount Union | Wabash
Tyler Burke's shaky start turned into a spectacular finish on Saturday. And it was all because Wabash was prepared.
Wabash photos by Howard Hewitt

By Jason Bailey
for D3sports.com

He couldn’t get up. Wabash senior quarterback Tyler Burke had been repeatedly pummeled to the turf by a ferocious North Central defensive line. Each time, he slowly scraped himself off the ground. Each time, he delivered with fourth-down conversions and touchdown passes. But nobody could absorb so many blows without eventually breaking down. It looked hopeless when senior wide receiver Jonathan Horn tapped a prone Burke on the shoulder.

He couldn’t get up.

“My body was so stiff I couldn’t even lift myself off the couch,” said Burke, days after leading Wabash to a stirring 29-28 comeback victory. “It was definitely painful waking up [Sunday].”

Little Giants fans are thankful Burke waited until then to rest. Coaches told Burke he would make his first start of the season one day before the second-round playoff game because of nagging injuries to starter Chase Belton. It’s not clear whether Burke or Belton will start Saturday in a quarterfinal matchup between Wabash (12-0, 6-0 NCAC) and host Mount Union (12-0, 9-0 OAC), which has first-hand experience with the postseason quarterback tango.

Last season, junior quarterback Matt Piloto started the Stagg Bowl after replacing junior Neal Seaman, who injured his foot during the national semifinals. Seaman was the starting quarterback for seven games this season before injuring his leg. Piloto has started five games since, including playoff victories over Benedictine and Centre.

The backup quarterback shown relaxing on the sideline with a baseball cap and clipboard is a dying stereotype. Coaches know quarterback injuries can derail a season if teams aren’t prepared.

“It’s tough being a backup in a really good program, so I’ve been ready the whole season to get my call,” Burke said. “It’s not like it was a complete shock. I had the experience.”

Mount Union coach Larry Kehres prepares for disaster scenarios by giving the first and second units similar reps in practice. He stands close to the backups to evaluate — who should start if needed as the season unfolds? — and encourage players who can easily feel overlooked. Sometimes that timeshare extends to games. Kehres, who first rotated his quarterbacks in 1994, played Piloto during the third and fifth offensive series this season before Seaman’s injury.

Matt Piloto got the start in the biggest game of the 2010 season and has been back in the role the past five games for Mount Union.
Mount Union athletics photo by JT Higgins

“This isn’t really new for me, and it’s paid dividends in the past,” Kehres said. “Both players would say they want to play the entire game. But both would say they want to play some of the game if the option is none. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a little bit in order to do what’s best for the team.”

Seaman and Belton have experienced the fickleness of the backup role. Belton made the most of his lone start as a freshman, passing for 283 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in a victory over Wooster. But starter Matt Hudson returned from injury, and Belton threw only one pass the rest of the season. Seaman threw passes in Mount Union’s first 14 games as a freshman behind starter Kurt Rocco, but didn’t even take the field in the Stagg Bowl.

Although it’s doubtful either quarterback will recover quickly enough to play on Saturday, Kehres said starters don’t lose their job to injury if they return with the same skill and speed. But that doesn’t mean offenses can afford any dropoff in production when backups are needed.

“I’ve always felt like I have a very well-prepared second unit of players,” Kehres said. “The ones that move up aren’t going to be confused and lost, and unable to execute mentally because of a lack of opportunities. They’ve had that opportunity in practice.”

Wabash coach Erik Raeburn, a former player and assistant coach at Mount Union who is also Kehres’ nephew, adopted a similar philosophy midway through the season after Belton injured his shoulder. The mobile quarterback played through the injury, but Raeburn was concerned one hard hit would put Burke in a difficult situation. The quarterbacks began splitting practice reps more evenly so Belton could recuperate while Burke received additional preparation with the first-team offense.

Scout’s take: Burke vs. Belton

Denison head coach Jake Hatem has seen first-hand how Wabash quarterbacks Tyler Burke and Chase Belton are effective with different skillsets. Burke threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start, replacing Belton in a 55-20 win in 2010. Belton started this season’s 39-13 win, throwing for 210 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 137 yards and two touchdowns. It’s a pick-your-poison philosophy for opposing defenses, according to Hatem:

“Chase is really dynamic. He’s the spread-style quarterback. Very good running their zone-read package, very dangerous if things fall apart. He’s one of the most dynamic players we play against. … We felt like we had to try to take Chase away and maybe try to dare him to do something else. Dare him to throw it downfield, and try to take away as much as we could.”

“Tyler is a little bit more of a classic-style quarterback. More of a thrower who runs their offense really well. A very polished quarterback. … He’s a great distributor. They’re very talented at wide receiver, with (Jonathan) Horn and (Wes) Chamblee. It definitely changes their game, there’s no question. … You try to give him a mixture of different coverages, different pressures.”

“You almost have to have two game plans. I’m not sure at this point in the year, if a team like Mount Union — as good as they are — if that is difficult. It’s almost two game plans. Almost A and B. … Our kids are getting ready for finals, and these guys are still getting ready for football. It’s easy to sit and say put two game plans in, but at the same time that’s very difficult.”

“If I perform well in practice, it’s important for him to perform well and vice versa,” said Burke, who also gave up his signal-calling duties during games to stretch and stay loose on the sideline.

The precautions proved prescient when Belton severely sprained his knee against rival DePauw in the final regular-season game. He wore a knee brace in the first-round playoff game against Illinois College, but Burke took over in the fourth quarter of a 38-20 victory. Burke started the North Central game poorly, throwing two interceptions in his first three passes, before rebounding in the fourth quarter with three touchdowns and a crucial scramble on fourth-and-14.

Burke said his experience starting three games in 2010 because of injuries to Belton helped limit his nerves. It certainly didn’t prevent him from getting battered and bruised in the second half.

“If it weren’t for adrenaline I probably would have been out after one or two of those hits,” Burke said. “It’s something I knew I had to gut out.”

His reward is an even stingier opponent — Mount Union leads Division III in scoring defense with 7.33 points per game and Wabash is sixth with 12.33. That’s a recipe for frustration for any quarterback, especially a backup. But the Little Giants can be comforted that Burke showed similar tenacity in his playoff comeback and preseason battle for the starting job.

“So many guys, if they’re not the starter, they just don’t have the patience to keep working and wait for their chance,” Raeburn said. “It’s pretty easy to make excuses or blame the coaches. But he wasn’t that guy. Thank God for us that he wasn’t.”

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