|Daymon Fleming breaks up a Randolph-Macon pass. The Muhlenberg defense broke up four passes while posting four sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Photo by Tom Nettleton, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
Only one conference in Division III can boast five teams with at least eight wins in the 2018 season.
The Centennial Conference had a year for the ages, and it’s still going. Johns Hopkins won the conference for the 10th consecutive season. Muhlenberg earned a Pool C berth after finishing 9-1 with its only loss to the Blue Jays. Each team is now 11-1 with a chance at meeting its rival again, this time in the national semifinals.
In the first meeting, on Oct. 27, the Blue Jays jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and held on for a 27-16 victory.
“I think it’s really cool to know how good our conference is. Whenever we lose to those guys, you know that they’re a really good football team. We thought we had a really good football team this year, too. I think our guys are now gaining even more confidence about that game,” said Mules coach Nate Milne. “We started slowly in that game. Now our guys tend to believe a little bit more. We had a lot of confidence in our defense. To see what they’re doing to everybody else, it’s really cool. It’s a rivalry, but we respect the heck out of each other.”
Milne and Blue Jays coach Jim Margraff often exchange text messages during the week. Both have been influenced by the late Mike Donnelly. Before the longtime Mules coach passed away from leukemia last year, he set the standard at Muhlenberg and fostered the rivalry with Johns Hopkins.
“I’m not sure that people can truly understand the respect between Johns Hopkins and Muhlenberg over the last 10-15 years,” said Margraff. “Mike Donnelly was a great friend of mine, we’ve known each other since the mid-’80s. Nate has become a good friend. Mike enjoyed our success because he knew it would make the rest of the conference better. For him and for Muhlenberg, I’m thrilled that the Muhlenberg program is one of the final eight teams playing.”
Although not every Mules player played for Donnelly, most were recruited by him and all know what he means to the program.
“We’ve put our own stamps on it offensively and defensively, but philosophically we’re still the same. Our men know the value of hard work and that was something Coach Donnelly talked about every single day. When we tell our men to dig in, our guys know who that comes from and what it means,” said Milne. “We asked every single one of our young men what ‘Dig In’ means to them. His stamp is still all over this program.”
The Blue Jays players cheered when they heard the Muhlenberg scores after each of the first two rounds of the playoffs. Both are rooting for one another this week, too.
|The Johns Hopkins defense didn't mind the weather on Saturday in Frostburg, Maryland.
Johns Hopkins athletics photo
“It’s extremely exciting to have one of our big rivals in the quarterfinals with us. It speaks to our conference strength,” said Blue Jays running back Tyler Messinger.
The Centennial Conference is now 7-0 in postseason play, as Ursinus, Franklin & Marshall, and Susquehanna dominated the Centennial-MAC bowl games. In their games against the other eight-plus-win teams, both Johns Hopkins and Muhlenberg went 3-1. The Mules outscored those opponents by 33, while the Blue Jays outscored those opponents by 85. Other than Susquehanna, which split its games against the two playoff teams, every Centennial opponent was held below its scoring average by the Mules and Blue Jays.
“Playing in the Centennial, it’s a great conference. That’s a staple for how well-represented our conference is,” said Muhlenberg defensive back Nick Sirico. “Our defense has held up against almost every single team. We’ve held about every single team under their yearly averages. It’s game-planning and getting after it every single day in practice. We watch film multiple times per day. We really game plan and get their O-line moving and create a new line of scrimmage every single play. Our defensive line has been so dominant all season.”
Sirico has emerged as a star, with a pick-six in each of the two playoff wins. His emergence speaks to the depth that has fueled the Mules through 12 straight weeks of playing at a high level. With no in-season bye, the Mules have relied on their depth more than ever. Sirico is not even a starter.
“The difference this year was our commitment to playing more players. We felt that we had a lot of depth. We knew we were playing 10 straight weeks without a bye and had to keep our guys fresh throughout the season,” said Milne. “Nick Sirico was a rotational player because we have two senior corners [Nate Corvil and Michael Blank] who are really good. Nick was stuck behind those guys and we just had to play him. In order to keep Nate and Mike healthy through 10 weeks, we had to play those guys.”
The Muhlenberg defense has forced seven turnovers in two playoff games, allowing just 19 points. They held Randolph-Macon’s vaunted rushing attack to just 21 yards, about ten percent of its per game average coming in. The intensity starts in practices. The depth of the defense also means that starting spots never feel secure. They must be earned each day.
“Any time you can hold a team that averages 250 yards per game and you can hold them to 21, that’s a huge confidence boost, no matter who you’re playing. It’s a testament to how hard we work and how willing we are to get after it,” said Sirico. “Some of my best friends play on our offense, but when we step out in practice, it’s pure competition. I can’t remember a day where there hasn’t been extreme competition. Your spot is never saved. You’ve got to ball out every single day. We’ve got so many guys who can play.”
For Johns Hopkins, the key to success has been an unstoppable offense. The Mules remain the only opponent to hold the Blue Jays under 35 points this season. Johns Hopkins now boasts to top total offense in the nation, averaging 568 yards per game. Quarterback David Tammaro holds the keys, and he drives the unit with precision. He has completed 38 of 51 pass attempts for 568 yards and six touchdowns without throwing an interception in the playoffs. In each game, six different Blue Jays have multiple receptions.
“David has full command of the offense right now. He and [offensive coordinator] Greg [Chimera] are on the same page. They meet constantly. A lot of times he’ll see it before we see it and look over to the sideline and nod,” said Margraff. “He’s a very selfless player. He just wants to win. Sometimes we need to put it on his back, other times he knows he’s got to mix it up. He’s got no ego when it comes to his numbers. He’s been a terrific leader in that way.”
In the postseason, the efficient passing has led to wide open rushing lanes. Messinger has been the main beneficiary, racking up a staggering 13.86 yards per carry in 22 rushes. He has found the end zone five times.
“I think it really starts with practicing at a high level. We’ve really been practicing at a really high level and setting a new standard each and every week. I have fantastic players around me,” said Messinger. “Dave has been fantastic at spreading out the field. I cannot say more about the O-line. They’ve played fantastic.”
The line has had unexpected depth this season, in part due to injuries. Center Jarrett Smith anchors the offense. Around him, the Blue Jays have played six or seven other linemen throughout the course of each game. It’s unorthodox, but it’s been effective.
“I think it’s the chemistry of the players and everybody coming together. We just want the win,” said Messinger. “That’s what the coaches preach, that’s what all of us preach. No matter who gets the numbers and who gets the stats, we just want the win column to keep racking up each and every week.”
The Mules are in the quarterfinals for the first time ever. The Blue Jays are there for the second time. Johns Hopkins gets another game at Homewood Field, where the seniors have only lost twice, both times in the postseason. The Mules have to go on the road to Mount Union, a challenge that they are embracing.
This is already the best season in Centennial Conference football history. A breakthrough to the semifinals would be another benchmark win. A rivalry rematch would be historic for a number of reasons.
“Our goal wasn’t just to get in the tournament; our goal was to make a run in the tournament,” said Sirico. “We couldn’t be more grateful. We’ve been working all year for this.”