December 6, 2012

Semifinal QBs a fearsome foursome

UMHB's LiDarral Bailey is upright most of the time, although the most famous play of his career was made from a less-standard position.
Photo by Andrew Zavoina, d3photography.com
Matt O'Connell
Matt O'Connell had a rough start to the season, and has missed a game because of injury, but has used his legs and his arms in big games for St. Thomas.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com
Kevin Burke
Kevin Burke's moment of arrival as Mount Union's starting quarterback came early in the season, although he hasn't needed to rally the team late in the game at all this year.
Photo by Dan Poel, d3photography.com
Nate Wara has developed into a much more patient quarterback in his four years calling signals for UW-Oshkosh.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

Two sophomores, playing like poised veterans. Two seniors who have already reached a new pinnacle but are far from content with the achievement. Two earned regional Player of the Year honors. One entered this season with significant playoff experience under his belt. One is a Gagliardi Trophy finalist. Three rank in the top six in the nation in passing efficiency.

The four quarterbacks still standing in the 2012 playoffs have more in common than may appear at first glance.

“I don’t really think about being a younger player on the field,” said Mount Union sophomore Kevin Burke. “My teammates treat me like a senior, like I’m one of them.”

Burke leads the nation with a quarterback rating of 196.61. Right behind him ranks Mary Hardin-Baylor senior LiDarral Bailey, with a rating of 191.22. Bailey led his team to the national quarterfinals each of the last two seasons, but completed just 22 of 50 passes with two touchdowns to five interceptions in a pair of losses to Wesley. Bailey is playing with a different sense of urgency this time around, and led the Cru to a victory over the Wolverines in the quarterfinal rematch, completing 16 of 20 passes for 195 yards and four touchdowns while adding 95 yards rushing on 17 carries.

“This is the last shot we have,” said Bailey of his senior classmates. “It’s so close we can taste it.”

Bailey is the most experienced of the four remaining quarterbacks. With 26 starts under his belt, and his recent celebrity status thanks to a SportsCenter highlight and the trend that is LiDarraling, the Cru quarterback has realized his potential in his senior season.

“He is playing with so much more confidence,” said Cru coach Pete Fredenburg. “He’s making better decisions, and our offense is better suited to highlight his abilities.”

It does not take 26 starts to gain confidence. Burke has come a long way since he entered camp battling with three other players for the Purple Raiders starting job.

“It really is night and day for me,” said Burke. “I had a bunch of nerves going into the first game. It’s a lot different now that we’ve been at this for fifteen weeks.”

The four quarterbacks have combined for 114 passing touchdowns to just 25 interceptions on the season. 13 of those interceptions have been thrown by St. Thomas sophomore Matt O’Connell, who is statistically the least accomplished of the four. Don’t let the numbers fool you. Eight of those picks came in the first five games of the season.

“Matt’s maturity makes up for the fact that he’s a sophomore,” said Tommies coach Glenn Caruso. “I think his lack of experience was more of a factor earlier in the season. At this point, Matt’s been in so many different situations this season.”

O’Connell had the advantage of serving as Dakota Tracy’s understudy last year as a freshman as Tracy led the Tommies to the national semifinals. Tracy was 28-2 as a starter and showed O’Connell, another small-town athlete, how to lead a national power.

“I was really blessed to be in the role where I could learn from him,” said O’Connell. “He was a mentor, a great friend, and he had a big impact on getting me ready for my role this year.”

The sophomores, Burke and O’Connell, entered the year as unproven sophomores, but each pinpointed a moment early in the year when he took the reins of the offense. O’Connell grew up in the first game of the season, as he led St. Thomas from 11 points down to defeat UW-Eau Claire 27-24. O’Connell passed for one score and ran for another in the final four minutes to snag the victory. Burke remembers a specific play in the season-opening victory over Franklin. Burke broke a few tackles and completed a pass to his tight end.

“After that play, everybody made me feel like I had asserted myself as the starting quarterback,” said Burke.

While Burke and O’Connell seized their moment early in the season, Bailey asserted himself even earlier.

“He was very disappointed in the way last year ended,” said Fredenburg. “He really dedicated himself starting in January to lead this year. I think he senses the opportunity we have.”

The most experienced starter of the group is also starter with the least playoff experience. Nate Wara has been UW-Oshkosh’s starting quarterback for four years. In his final year, the Gagliardi finalist led his team to its first postseason appearance. The Titans have won 15 consecutive games dating to last season. He is enjoying his first playoff ride more than he is thinking about his final weeks as a Titan.

“I’m just glad I can play football. I’m not really thinking about being a senior,” said Wara. “Our main goal is still up for grabs right now.”

An overtime loss to UW-La Crosse a week after pushing eventual champion UW-Whitewater to the brink last season fueled Wara and his teammates in the offseason. The memory of those narrow defeats that kept the Titans from the playoffs in 2011 has helped motivate Wara and his teammates this year and played an important role in Saturday’s rally in Oregon which ended with a victory over Linfield in overtime.

“Our motto this year has been ‘Remember La Crosse,’ ” said Wara. “Whenever a game gets tough, we think about that.”

Wara and Bailey have four years of starting experience. Their opponents in the semifinals start sophomore quarterbacks. Yes, there are advantages, but Burke and O’Connell have proven that age is just a number. The more important number is the sophomores’ teams’ combined 26-0 record this season.

“There are a lot of inherent qualities you get with experience,” said Caruso. “In some ways, being a little young and naïve to the pressures and magnitude of the situation can be beneficial.”

Burke and O’Connell will have two more offseasons to grow and improve. Wara and Bailey have had those opportunities and made the most of them.

Which QB will have the best game Saturday?
LiDarral Bailey
Kevin Burke
Matt O'Connell
Nate Wara
Someone's backup

“All of the offseason workouts help you become more mentally tough,” said Bailey. “Those transformed me to be a different person. I took that leadership role with everyone holding me accountable.”

The seniors know that they have at most two weeks to make an impact in college football. The biggest advantage to being a senior seems to be the opportunity to learn from the three senior classes that came before you.

“Every senior that came through passed a little something on to me,” said Wara. “I hope to leave something for the guys that come after me.”

The quarterback position is unique in many ways, especially when it comes to leadership. A quarterback, no matter how old or experienced, must be a leader on the field. The learning curve is accelerated for the man lining up behind center.

“I have to treat my quarterback like a junior or senior,” said Caruso. “I never treat my quarterback like a freshman. If I have to treat him like a freshman, he needs to find another position to play.”

The four quarterbacks who will start this weekend have taken different paths to lead their teams to this point. A combined 52 wins and zero losses heading into Dec. 8 tells the story better than anything.

“Everyone dreams about having that perfect season,” said Wara. “We’ve always talked about it. Now, we have a chance to make it reality.”

Sep. 1: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Coast Guard at Anna Maria
7:00 PM
Defiance at Baldwin Wallace
Live Stats
7:00 PM
Washington and Lee at Johns Hopkins
7:30 PM
Trine at Manchester
Live Stats
8:00 PM
Millsaps at Belhaven
Sep. 2: All times Eastern
6:00 PM
Mass-Dartmouth at Mount Ida
6:00 PM
Delaware Valley at Wesley
7:00 PM
Muhlenberg at Wilkes
7:00 PM
N.C. Wesleyan at Stevenson
7:00 PM
Western New England at Springfield
Video Live Stats
7:00 PM
Fitchburg State at Becker
Video Live Stats
7:00 PM
Albright at Salisbury
7:00 PM
WPI at MIT
Live Stats
7:00 PM
Salve Regina at Worcester State
7:00 PM
Bridgewater State at Curry
7:00 PM
Morrisville State at St. Lawrence
10:00 PM
Adrian at Pacific
Sep. 3: All times Eastern
12:00 PM
Endicott at Framingham State
Live Stats
12:00 PM
Washington U. at Carnegie Mellon
Live Stats
12:00 PM
Chicago at Case Western Reserve
12:00 PM
Husson at Alfred
12:00 PM
SUNY-Maritime at Maine Maritime
Video
12:00 PM
Cortland at Heidelberg
12:00 PM
Otterbein at Buffalo State
12:00 PM
Ursinus at Bethany
12:00 PM
Sewanee at Kenyon
1:00 PM
King's at Moravian
Live Stats
1:00 PM
Kean at Christopher Newport
1:00 PM
McDaniel at Catholic
Live Stats
1:00 PM
Lebanon Valley at Franklin and Marshall
1:00 PM
Plymouth State at Castleton
Live Stats
1:00 PM
RPI at Norwich
1:00 PM
Randolph-Macon at Dickinson
1:00 PM
Oberlin at Kalamazoo
1:00 PM
Emory and Henry at Ferrum
1:00 PM
Wooster at Washington and Jefferson
1:00 PM
Alfred State at William Paterson
1:00 PM
St. Vincent at Alma
Live Stats
1:00 PM
Concordia (Wis.) at Finlandia
1:00 PM
Olivet at St. John Fisher
1:00 PM
Rowan at Widener
1:00 PM
Hobart at Brockport
1:00 PM
Union at Ithaca
1:00 PM
Susquehanna at Lycoming
1:00 PM
Utica at Misericordia
1:00 PM
The Apprentice School at Methodist
1:00 PM
TCNJ at UW-Whitewater
1:30 PM
Wilmington at Bluffton
1:30 PM
Monmouth at Hope
1:30 PM
Bridgewater at Gettysburg
1:30 PM
Muskingum at Waynesburg
1:30 PM
Juniata at Grove City
2:00 PM
Wisconsin Lutheran at Trinity Int'l
2:00 PM
Lakeland at Carroll
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
UW-Stevens Point at St. Norbert
2:00 PM
Austin at Hendrix
2:00 PM
Maranatha Baptist at Martin Luther
Live Stats
2:00 PM
Millikin at Greenville
Live Stats
2:00 PM
Eureka at Knox
Live Stats
2:00 PM
MacMurray at Rockford
2:00 PM
Gustavus Adolphus at Westminster (Mo.)
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
UW-La Crosse at Luther
2:00 PM
Beloit at Lake Forest
2:00 PM
Concordia-Moorhead at Jamestown
2:00 PM
Crown at Hamline
Live Stats
2:00 PM
Carleton at Macalester
2:00 PM
Bethel at Dubuque
2:00 PM
St. Scholastica at St. John's
Live Stats
2:00 PM
St. Olaf at Grinnell
2:00 PM
Buena Vista at Mayville St.
2:00 PM
Simpson at UW-Stout
2:00 PM
Aurora at Carthage
2:00 PM
UW-River Falls at Coe
2:00 PM
Ripon at Concordia-Chicago
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Elmhurst at Loras
2:00 PM
Huntingdon at Louisiana College
2:00 PM
North Central (Ill.) at Robert Morris-Chicago
2:00 PM
Benedictine at Wheaton (Ill.)
2:00 PM
John Carroll at UW-Oshkosh
2:30 PM
Southern Virginia at Earlham
Live Stats
2:30 PM
Lawrence at Presentation
4:00 PM
UW-Platteville at George Fox
4:00 PM
La Verne at Puget Sound
Video Live Stats
4:00 PM
Central at Whitworth
5:00 PM
Hartwick at Western Connecticut
Live Stats
6:00 PM
Wabash at Albion
6:00 PM
Maryville (Tenn.) at Berry
6:00 PM
Augustana at Mount St. Joseph
6:00 PM
Thomas More at Franklin
Live Stats
6:00 PM
Hampden-Sydney at Averett
7:00 PM
Denison at Marietta
7:00 PM
Hiram at Westminster (Pa.)
7:00 PM
Thiel at Allegheny
7:00 PM
Capital at Wittenberg
Live Stats
7:00 PM
Shenandoah at Gallaudet
Live Stats
7:00 PM
Illinois College at Rose-Hulman
Video Live Stats
7:00 PM
Geneva at Frostburg State
7:00 PM
Nichols at Westfield State
7:00 PM
Greensboro at Guilford
Live Stats
7:00 PM
LaGrange at Birmingham-Southern
7:00 PM
Hardin-Simmons at Southwestern
Live Stats
7:00 PM
Anderson at North Park
7:00 PM
Ohio Wesleyan at Mary Hardin-Baylor
7:00 PM
East Texas Baptist at Texas Lutheran
7:10 PM
St. Thomas at UW-Eau Claire
Video Live Stats
7:30 PM
Hanover at Centre
8:00 PM
Willamette at Rhodes
8:00 PM
Cornell at Iowa Wesleyan
Live Stats
8:00 PM
Augsburg at Northwestern (Minn.)
Live Stats
8:00 PM
Southwestern Assemblies at Howard Payne
8:00 PM
Sul Ross State at UT-Permian Basin
8:30 PM
Redlands at Trinity (Texas)
Dec. 18: All times Eastern
Final
Mount Union 49, at St. Thomas 35
@ Salem, Va.
Box Score Recap Recap Photos