Grinnell's super stopper

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Ryan Slager leads the nation with 135 tackles heading into the season finale.
Photo courtesy Grinnell Athletics 

While Grinnell is still looking for its first win of the season in the Midwest Conference, linebacker Ryan Slager has been quietly making a name for himself as the nation's top tackler most of the season.

After nine games, Slager is averaging 15.0 tackles per contest, leading the nation. The sophomore is a full tackle per game ahead of second place Donovan Hayden of Bethany (14.0) and Jakob Trautwein of Castleton (13.9). At first blush, one would argue that Slager has been able to compile such impressive numbers because the Pioneers, who are 0-9 on the season, are on defense so much.

Grinnell coach Jeff Pedersen argues not so.

"I think coaches, when the voting comes for awards, overlook his statistics because we don't have a great team defense. If you look at it, opponents are running 56 plays per game against us, he's making tackles on 15 of those plays, which is pretty ridiculous," said Pedersen. "We're seeing the second-fewest plays in the league and he's making tackles on almost a third of the plays and you don't see anyone else doing that."

Slager is following up his freshman season in which he was third in the country with 134 total tackles. He has 135 tackles this year with one game to go.

"It's just desire," Pedersen said. "You've played with those guys who seemed to always be around the football. Ryan is one of those guys. He had a surprisingly good year his first year. He's now followed that up with an even better record this year."

Pedersen said that while Grinnell is searching for that first win, Slager is a player who is always doing whatever it takes regardless of the score.

"I think what separates him from a lot of guys is that it doesn't matter what the score is," Pedersen said. "He's going to play with high intensity. We can be down pretty bad and he's still going 100 miles per hour. At practice, he's going 100 miles per hour. A lot of guys would get frustrated when you get behind but he doesn't show it."

Pedersen said the biggest challenge for the program is giving Slager a stronger supporting cast the next two years, improving the defense overall.

"We have some pretty good guys out there but we have a pretty small roster and get worn out pretty quick," Pedersen said. "We'd like to get a deeper, more veteran team around him where everyone is playing with that aggression. Our guys certainly work hard, but we want to get a deeper defense around him."

No. 6 North Central ready to move on

North Central's Jeff Thorne has been to the playoffs numerous times as an assistant coach under his father, but Saturday's 34-21 win over Carthage allowed him to lead the Cardinals into the playoffs as a head coach. North Central (9-0, 7-0 in CCIW) will be playing to win the conference title outright at home against Elmhurst College (5-4, 4-3).

The Cardinals return to the playoffs for the first time since a run to the national semifinals in 2013.

"It's good to know that we've got the program back to where we want it," Thorne said. "We had a couple of years where we were so close and just missed out on the conference championship. It's really nice to be back with an opportunity to play in the playoffs."

Thorne said despite wrapping up a playoff spot, there is still a matter of an outright title and entering the playoffs with some momentum.

"This is a really big game for us and Elmhurst is a very good team," Thorne said. "They've been playing some really good defense this season. We've got our work cut out for us. We'll prepare for this like any other conference game. We're taking it one game at a time."

In fact, the seniors on North Central's squad were freshmen when the Cardinals lost to Mount Union in the national semifinals in the snow in the closing moments of that contest.

"We're looking forward to seeing just how far we can go," Thorne said. "The seniors have two more games guaranteed and after that it's week to week. We want to send them off the right way with the last conference home game."

The down low on the NACC

Defending champion Lakeland (6-3) is now in the driver's seat after the Muskies' convincing 55-25 win over Aurora. Lakeland, Benedictine (6-3), and Aurora (5-4) are all 4-1 in conference play going into the final week. Lakeland, though, owns victories over Benedictine (32-29 on Oct. 15) and Aurora. If Lakeland beats Rockford on Saturday, it will share the conference title with the winner of the Benedictine at Aurora contest and represent the NACC in the playoffs.

"It's really a challenge for us to stay focused and look at a Rockford team that's been competitive in the league," said Lakeland coach Colin Bruton. "They are really playing pretty good football down the stretch and we want to be prepared for Rockford and not looking ahead. Rockford is going to be playing on Senior Day without a lot to lose, and can make their whole season with a win against Lakeland on Saturday."

In Lakeland's 55-25 victory over Aurora, quarterback Michael Whitley broke his own school record for total offense, accounting for 576 yards on that side of the ball, shattering his former single-game record of 520 yards set last season against Benedictine. As an offense, the Muskies piled up 731 yards of total offense, 36 first downs and a more than 13-minute advantage in time of possession.

Bruton said, though, all of that is forgotten as they go on the road Saturday for the final regular season game.

"We're very open with them that we have to treat this like a one-game season," Bruton said. "We had a big win earlier in the year and then played Wisconsin Lutheran and I thought we got a little comfortable. They took it to us and hopefully we'll take that lesson this week."

If Lakeland falls to Rockford (1-8, 0-5 in NACC), it essentially turns the Benedictine-Aurora game into the conference title game with the winner claiming the league title outright and moving on into the playoffs.

Ditto for Rose-Hulman's, Franklin's chances

While Rose-Hulman (7-2, 6-1) cannot officially claim the HCAC title yet after taking a bye last week, the Fightin' Engineers will need to beat winless Earlham (0-9, 0-7 in HCAC) to get at least a share of the conference title and nab its automatic bid from probable co-champion Franklin for the first time in seven years.

The Fightin' Engineers' win over Franklin on October 22, combined with Franklin's 56-24 victory at Mount St. Joseph on October 29, leaves Rose-Hulman one victory away from its first trip to the NCAA Division III playoffs in school history. The Fightin' Engineers host Earlham in Saturday's regular season finale.

Franklin (7-2, 6-1), which was ranked as high as No. 14 before losing to Rose-Hulman, has a tougher road in making the playoffs. The only scenario for the Grizzlies to get the conference's automatic bid is to beat Hanover (4-5, 4-3) and for Earlham to pull off the huge upset of Rose-Hulman. If Rose-Hulman wins, Franklin will be at the mercy of the Division III selection committee to give them one of the precious few Pool C slots. The committee has been notorious for not giving those bids to teams with two losses, even though for Franklin one of those losses came at the hands of Division I non-scholarship Butler. It will be interesting to see how the committee treats the Grizzlies.

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Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss
1999-2000 columnist: Don Stoner

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