|Norm Eash has led the Titans to six playoff appearances in his 31 seasons. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Bauer is making his first trip.
Illinois Wesleyan athletics photo
By Clyde Hughes
When then-unranked Illinois Wesleyan beat perennial Division III power UW-Whitewater, 17-10, to open the season, it was hard for the Titans not to celebrate a little.
It was a victory over the then-No. 3-ranked team in the country, which catapulted the Titans into the national rankings as well.
There was just one problem: There were still 10 weeks left in the football season and Illinois Wesleyan had to face two more two top ten teams -- North Central and Wheaton -- in September.
"It was pretty incredible," Illinois Wesleyan coach Norm Eash says now, with his 9-1 Titans ranked No. 11 in the nation and preparing for a home playoff game against No. 16-ranked and undefeated Case Western Reserve.
"This regular season is going to stand out for us, regardless of what happens in the playoffs," Eash said. "Beating Wisconsin-Whitewater set the tone for the rest of the season for us. Not too many teams can say that they've beaten them."
But that win seems like a long time ago as Illinois Wesleyan managed to stand tall with a share of the CCIW title and an at-large playoff bid after going through a difficult conference schedule. A 26-13 loss to No. 9 North Central is the blemish on their record. They beat No. 22 Wheaton, 14-10.
Eash pointed to new defensive coordinator Jeff McDonald in making the Titans one of the top units in the country on that side of the ball.
"We've been very good defensively all year and Jeff has done a great job," Eash said. "We try to put our players in the best positions. For example Brinton Wilkey (47 tackles) was all-conference at strong safety last year, but we moved him to linebacker this year and that worked out well for us."
|Jordan Hassan leads one of the nation's stingiest defenses.
Illinois Wesleyan athletics photo
Eash pointed to Justin Krzeczkowski (48 tackles) one of the leaders along the defensive line and suggested that linebacker Jordan Hassan (92 tackles) should be a CCIW player of the year candidate.
On offense, the Titans have been anchored all year by a veteran offensive line which consists of mostly three- and four-year starters. Quarterback Brandon Bauer is completing 60 percent of his passes (167-278-6) and has thrown 22 touchdowns. Running back Morgan Alexander is averaging 96.4 yards per contest. Jack Healy and Zach Walsh have both stood out at wide receiver.
Everything came together for the Titans last Saturday on Senior Day. Playing against a good Millikin team that beat Wheaton earlier this year, Illinois Wesleyan cruised to a 31-6 victory, earning Eash his 200th victory as a head coach and 142nd conference win, tying him for tops in the CCIW.
"We had a lot of things going on that day," Eash said. "The number one priority was to make sure that these players got to know what it feels like to be a conference champion because conference titles are hard to come by in this league."
Eash, now the winningest coach in Illinois Wesleyan history, tied his old IWU coach Don "Swede" Larson for the most conference wins with 142.
"The conference wins are really hard for me because of the respect I have for Coach Larson," Eash said. "It's very humbling. Of course, winning 200 games is humbling as well, but you don't do that by yourself. That comes with a lot of good players and good coaching staffs."
Illinois Wesleyan will now try to extend its season at Tucci Stadium against Case Western. The Spartans average 43.5 points per game with their offense averaging 462.9 yards per game. Senior quarterback Rob Cuda has completed 59.6 percent of his passes (159 of 267) for 2,510 yards and 28 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
"To go undefeated, we have a lot of respect for that," Eash said. "Greg (Debeljak) has done a great job with that program and they've got a great tradition of winning there. Their kids play hard and they have a great quarterback. We will be in for a great ballgame."
Eash said one of the things that he believes will help his squad on Saturday is its resiliency, which has shown time and time again in big games. The Titans trailed UW-Whitewater, Wheaton, and Carthage in the second half but bounced back in all of those contests.
"This team plays with a lot of confidence and they believe," Eash said. "They will believe until the very end. They believe in who we are, our talent, and we've had no breaking point. That's the makeup of our team."
The Titans will get a chance to show that ability to rebound one more time against a nationally-ranked team, but it's not like that's something they haven't done before.
The other Midwest playoff games:
No. 6 St. John's (9-1) at No. 9 North Central (9-1): North Central, the CCIW co-champs with Illinois Wesleyan, has been ranked in Top 10 all season long and plays a team with a ton of tradition and national championships in St. John's.
"It's really a phenomenal opportunity to play St. John's," said North Central coach Jeff Thorne. "Our kids were really excited about it when we saw the brackets. It's a great opportunity to play against a great team from a great conference and carry the CCIW flag. They're a really good football team, so it will be a great challenge."
Thorne said he feels like the Cardinals are playing their best football right now, coming off a convincing 49-7 win over Elmhurst last Saturday to close the season.
"Outside of the one half where we had the 72-hour halftime against Wheaton, we've played pretty well," Thorne said. "All season long, we've made adjustments on both sides of the ball that seems to be working out well. We're still running the ball well and passing with efficiency, so I feel very good about where we are right now."
Cardinal running back Austin Breunig, who was just named the CCIW's offensive player of the year, rushed for 1,266 yards and 15 touchdowns this season.
Lakeland (8-2) at No. 3 UW-Oshkosh (9-0): For the high-scoring Muskies, the opener could not be any tougher against the WIAC champions.
"Three of our last 12 games will have been against WIAC teams, so we feel much better prepared for the level of competition," Lakeland coach Colin Bruton said. "Our guys understand the challenge ahead of us, but I think our postseason experience provides a level of calm. I think we had a pretty good idea the last few weeks that Oshkosh was a likely destination."
One question for the Muskies is the health of their record-setting quarterback Michael Whitley. Whitley sat out the last game of the season against Rockford and Bruton said his start will be a game-time decision. He said, though, that his team will have to play like they belong if they want to pull off the first-round upset.
"We need to play with confidence and start fast," Bruton said. "Our two previous playoff games we were a little shell-shocked early and fell behind. We feel like we are much better prepared this time around. We believe in the model that got us here. We have an explosive offense, and we know we will have to score points. Defensively, it will come down to our ability to tackle in space and fight at the line of scrimmage."
Franklin (8-2) at No. 17 Wartburg (10-0): The game represents a Wittenberg reunion between Franklin coach Mike Leonard and Wartburg coach Rick Willis. Leonard was the offensive coordinator and Willis was the defensive coordinator for the Wittenberg team in 1996.
"It's an exciting time and getting ready to play a team we've never faced before," Leonard said. "At this time of the year, you want to be getting better each week and I think we've been able to do that. The offense is clicking on all cylinders and the defense has grown up."
The Grizzlies return to the playoffs after missing last year when Rose-Hulman shared the HCAC title but won the automatic bid. It's Franklin's ninth playoff appearance in the last 11 years representing the conference. The passing combination of Chase Burton and Deontez Alexander produced 18 touchdowns this season, tops in the nation.
Wartburg, champions of the IIAC, is averaging 38.7 points per game while giving up 15.2 per contest on defense.
"Coach (Willis) can coach anything and do it very well and you can tell by watching them that they are very fundamentally sound," Leonard said. "They just don't make mistakes, so it's going to be a great challenge for us. They have fine athletes and are very strong up front in the trenches."
Monmouth (9-1) at No. 25 Trine (10-0): After a dramatic 9-6 overtime victory over rival St. Norbert in the MWC championship game, Monmouth travels to Angola, Ind. to take on high-scoring Trine, which should be a solid test against the Scots' vaunted defense. Monmouth coach Chad Braun believes the St. Norbert game, which gave the Scots back-to-back MWC titles, was a great primer for the Trine contest in terms of atmosphere.
"That was definitely a playoff-type game and a lot of back and forth, but we were able to find a way to win it," Braun said. "It was a great prep for this week."
While Monmouth has not given up more than 14 points in its last eight games, Trine is averaging 45.6 points a game coming out of the MIAA. Lamar Carswell leads Trine's attack, averaging 134.4 yards per game in an offense that's averaging nearly 500 yards per contest.
"I've watched them on film and they are extremely good on the offensive side of the ball," Braun said. "Their running back is really special. Their offensive line does a great job up front and their quarterback (Evan Wyse) can run it or throw it, so he's a dual threat. It's a lot to prepare for seeing it for the first time."