|Mickey Kober's pressure forced an interception as the Mules improved to 4-0 in conference play.
Muhlenberg Athletics photo
By Adam Turer
Certain scores raise eyebrows across the nation.
When a program has dominated its conference for so long, an early-season loss creates excitement within that conference and around the D-III football landscape. Could there be a new team in the playoffs?
For those programs used to being on top, they realize that there is still plenty of football to play and that they can claw their way back into the conference championship and/or playoff conversation. For those teams who find themselves surprisingly atop the standings near the season’s midpoint, they recognize that their work is far from finished yet.
Huntingdon, Johns Hopkins, and Linfield all lost their conference openers in 2018. The Hawks had lost just one USA South Conference game in the past three years. The Blue Jays had lost just two Centennial Conference games since 2011. The Wildcats had only lost one Northwest Conference game since 2009.
“For a lot of years now, we’ve been a lot of people’s big games. Now we’re in the other situation. To me, it’s great. The reward for winning a big game is you play in a bigger game the next week,” said Johns Hopkins coach Jim Margraff. “They’re always must-win games in our conference. It’s great to have challenges every week.”
After a Week 2 setback at Susquehanna, the Blue Jays have been reminding opponents of which team has dominated the conference for the past decade. A 52-6 win over previously unbeaten Ursinus yesterday was the latest step in the road to reclaim the throne. Another test looms at Franklin and Marshall this week. The Diplomats were handed their first loss yesterday by Muhlenberg.
The Mules remain the only unbeaten team in the Centennial, at 4-0. Nate Milne is in his first season as head coach, and roughly seventy percent of the roster is comprised of underclassmen.
“I don’t know where our ceiling is, which is kind of cool,” said Milne. “We’re just so young. Our staff is new, our team is new and young. Every day is a new experience for us, trying to put our own spin on things here.”
After knocking off the ranked Dips, the Mules get to travel to Ursinus, then have their non-conference game at Thomas More. Every game has the feeling of a must-win game in this conference.
“This is as good a year in the Centennial as there has ever been. The competition is immense every single week,” said Milne. “You look up at the leaderboard and somebody did something you didn’t expect. It usually comes down to Week 9 or Week 10 to be our conference champion.”
Margraff lets his players discuss Saturday’s scoreboard at their Sunday meeting. Then, they move on and prepare for the next big test.
“We take five minutes every Sunday and say let’s just be fans and talk scenarios, talk about what your parents and friends are talking about,” said Margraff. “None of it makes any sense at all unless we play our best that week.”
The Blue Jays lost to Ursinus last season and were eager to avenge that defeat. They did it in a big way. That was the program’s first Centennial loss since 2012. Johns Hopkins still won the conference title and automatic playoff berth in 2017. They know that they can still control their playoff destiny.
“We haven’t been there many times before, but we were right back to work the next week,” said Margraff. “This week wasn’t difficult at all having lost to Ursinus last year. We were incredibly focused all week and that showed in the game.”
The parity in the league is evident. After defeating Johns Hopkins, Susquehanna has played three straight overtime games against Centennial foes. The league is strong from top to bottom. The Mules may be alone at the top now, but are still preparing each day with a mentality that their efforts need to be better tomorrow. A showdown with Johns Hopkins looms on October 27, but there are still three big games to play before then.
“Every week is something different and a unique and every team is very talented and very well-coached,” said Milne. “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. I don’t think our guys are looking ahead. We’re still trying to the hunter instead of the hunted.”
Mike “Duke” Donnelly passed away a year ago October 4. The former Muhlenberg coach built a legacy that Milne is working to uphold. So far, the results look promising.
“Even our freshmen who we recruited last year, they were interested in Muhlenberg College number one because we are a great academic institution and second because of the great tradition that we have. Six straight seasons of at least eight wins is something we’re very proud of,” said Milne. “Even though they may not have met Coach Donnelly, they read about him and the legacy that he built. He is still a huge part of what we do philosophically. It was a recipe for success and there’s no sense in changing that recipe.”
Milne was the Mules’ offensive coordinator for three seasons prior to his elevation following the 2017 season. He understands the impact that Donnelly had not just on the Muhlenberg program, but throughout the Centennial Conference. Head coaches at Susquehanna and Franklin and Marshall are also Donnelly proteges.
“He taught me so much in the few years we had together. He was teaching me even when he didn’t mean to be teaching. He was a consummate professional,” said Milne. “Myself and many other coaches in the conference are just grateful to have been around him for however long we were able to be around him.”
Donnelly’s voice still rings in the back of Milne’s head, especially while watching film on Sunday mornings. Milne and his staff are determined to continue building on the principles that Donnelly established.
“The care and the passion that he brought on a daily basis, we take that to heart,” said Milne. “We know we have to hold ourselves to a very high standard.”
Here's what to watch for on D3football.com this week.
Later today-- New Top 25 poll released
Monday--Around the Nation podcast with Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan and Team of the Week weekly honors.
Thursday--Around the Nation column.
Friday--Quick Hits, and another edition of the Around the Nation podcast.
Saturday--You know what Saturdays are for.
We've got great content coming at you all week, every week. Follow along and get to know D-III football beyond just your favorite team, and don’t forget to use the #d3fb hashtag on social media.
If you have ideas for an upcoming column or just want to talk some D-III football, get at me at @adamturer on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.