Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Talent Gap

I'm not certain how he does it, but Mount Union's Larry Kehres seems to recruit/transfer-in players that are above and (especially) beyond the quality of players seen on other D3 programs. And he's been doing it for just about 20 years now. I realize this is anything but new, but after watching their game against Mary Hardin Baylor (a team, thought by many, capable of realistically beat UMU), I was just in awe on how they dominated that game. I'm aware the score indicated it was a close, but that's only because Mount spotted them FIVE turnovers, and they still managed to win by two touchdowns!!! How many times does a team lose the turnover margin by that much, and still come out as double digit winners?? Answer: You can probably count the occurrences on one hand! Yes, MHB did cough it up late in the game making Mount's turnover margin -4 on the day, but the damage was already done and the game was over by then

MHB was a very good team this season with an outstanding offense and a solid defense. In fact, this was probably one of the best MHB teams they've ever fielded. However, Mount's quarterback (Burke) - only a sophomore - and a host of wide receivers (especially Jasper Collins) just tore apart MHB's secondary. The way Mount Union's receivers (with their speed and quickness) are able to get off the line and create separation isn't typically seen at this level. Collins (like Cecil Shorts before him, and Pierre Garcon before him) is about damn near uncoverable at this level of college football. Besides a special teams miscue that lead to a quick MHB touchdown, and a throwing mistake (pick six) by Burke, Mount's offense and defense just manhandled D3's second best team. Mount out gained MHB 457 total yards to just 275. And the Crusaders are a team that averages over 523 yards/game!!!! By scoring 34 points in the fourth quarter alone, Mount almost equalled MHB's point total for the entire game (35). Speaking of their defense, I think I counted three or four Purple Raiders in MHB's backfield following just about each snap in the fourth quarter. Their front six or seven were unblockable and just destroyed MHB's offensive line late in the game. Considering they did it against a Crusaders line that consisted of a 2013 Preseason First Team All-American, and a First Team All-Region player. Luckily for MHB, they have a very athletic QB in LiDarral Bailey. The senior did his best avoiding the onslaughting waves of purple attackers - which at times wasn't enough.

You will never hear me say that it is Mount Union's time to move up to D2. Or that Kehres has an unfair advantage...that's just ridiculous and in no-way true. He's just taking full advantage of not having a roster limit (just like 90% of all D3 football programs have), while allowing the best to emerge from the pack as nobody gets cut. It's just amazing to me the level of talent that Kehres is able to bring in year in and year out from all over the country. Just by watching one game, you can see that the Purple Raiders' athleticism far out weighs the athleticism of most other programs. Mount Union's recruiting tentacles extend far beyond Ohio and its neighboring states. They actually seem to have pipelines to various corners of the country. A little over half of their roster contains players from Ohio. That's really not that much considering most D3 programs get a vast majority its roster from in-state. Whereas almost a quarter of Kehres's roster contains players from outside Ohio and their neighboring states. Numerous athletes are plucked from: Florida, New York, Texas, Maryland, Virgina, California and even the Bahamas. Nine roster players alone are from Florida - which really needs a D3 football program already :). Between coaching and recruiting Kehres knows exactly what he's doing...and has been doing it well. Extremely well.

Because D3 football is so large (239 some-odd teams I believe), the talent gab between teams are equally as large. Looking at the All-American list each year I think the committee is being modest with the athletes in some of these big programs. In fact, I would take a handful of Mount Union players - that didn't make the list - over many non-Purple Raiders that did make the All-American team. Yes, some of those athletes from various programs put up All-American type numbers in their respected conferences, and do deserve the recognition. But in my opinion, (trying to avoid sounding like Roger Waters) some might be just another "brick in the wall" if they played for a big program (i.e. Mount Union, Whitewater, MHB, Linfield or St. Thomas). I guess what I'm trying to say is (in trying my hardest not to sound condescending), All-Americans at less prestigious D3 teams may not be at the same talent level as some athletes on these aforementioned schools....if that makes sense.

After that MHB game I was just awestruck by the speed and athleticism of Mount Union. And to do it for almost 20 years straight now is just mindblowing. It almost didn't seem like D3 football to me, but something you watch on a major network (ABC/ESPN/NBC) on Saturdays. No rebuilding required in Alliance, but rather just reload in spring time. After seven seasons (2005-2011) Whitewater seemed to be on their way to "Mount Union type greatness" but fell flat and failed to make the playoffs in 2012. Whitewater still has a bunch of question marks for next season. So it's tough to tell if the Warhawks will need some years to rebuild, or if 2012 was just a hiccup. UWW has probably been the closets team in D3 history to replicate UMU's success. However they are still years of successful seasons away from being where the Purple Raiders are today.

It wasn't my intention to write this to patronize lesser D3 schools where athletics may not be a top priority. Nor was it written to offer up misinterpreted back-handed complements to Mount Union. But rather, it's just a grouping of random thoughts following the Mount Union/MHB game, and just how much better some programs are compared to hundred(s) of others in D3.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Fourth-Round Matchup: St. Thomas Tommies

It's rare to see a pair of teams meet in the playoffs (that aren't in same conference) that have three common opponents in a season: Eau Claire, River Falls and Bethel. St. Thomas beat Bethel 37-0, River Falls 43-9 and Eau Claire 27-24. While Oshkosh beat Bethel 37-14, River Falls 19-7 and Eau Claire 50-13. What does this mean? Probably absolutely nothing. In fact, the average margin of victory against these three teams gives the Tommies a slight edge (only .6 points/game to be exact). Yes, the Eau Claire game against UST was surprisingly close, but that was very early in the season (and don't get me started on that game again). It's tough to tell how much chemistry St. Thomas had in week one (if any), especially given what they lost on offense from that 2011 team. It's fun to look at common opponents, particularly when these two teams share so many, but I doubt it'll get you closer to figuring out who will win this Saturday.

St. Thomas (ranked 4th in the country) came out as winners of the North region, eliminating St. Norberts (48-27), Elmhurst (24-17) and Hobart (47-7). The Tommies finished the regular season 10-0, and received the Pool A bid entering the playoffs as the top seed in the North. Thanks to their university committing to building a strong athletic program, UST quickly became a D3 football powerhouse in a matter of a few years. The Tommies were just a 2-8 team five years ago. Since the hiring of head coach Glenn Caruso in 2008, St. Thomas has only suffered seven total losses in those five years. To the dismay St. John's fans everywhere, Coach Caruso has now won the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference three years straight, and has quickly turned an irrelevant football program into a perennial power. In fact, Caruso hasn't lost a conference game since losing to their bitter rival, St. John's, in 2009 (20-17). Taking this one step further, UST has now beat the Johnnies in three straight seasons. This comes after losing to them 16 of the previous 17 years prior to 2010 (UST beat SJU in 1997, 31-27). Hiring a charismatic coach committed to winning, while pouring lots of resources into the athletic program (specifically football) has really placed St. Thomas among the elite in D3 football.

St. Thomas Center Curtis James
 On offense the Tommies are anchored by All-American center Curtis James. The 6'3" 304lb senior has been a nightmare for opposing interior defensemen. As seen below the Tommies have been rushing for over 246 yards/per game behind James. As well as giving up only 12 sacks on the year. That's .92 sacks/game, which is good enough for 24th best in the country (out of 239 D3 programs). Freshman Brenton Braddock leads St. Thomas with 1008 yards rushing this season and 16 rushing touchdowns. Apart from Braddock, quarterback Matt O'Connell posses as a serious rushing threat as well. The 6'0" 194lb sophomore is the team's second leading rushing, averaging over 61 yards/game (5.8/carry). The one blemish in this skilled offense has been St. Thomas' inability to protect the football. As a team they've turned the ball over 29 times this season. Only 15 teams in the country have turned it over more. However, that might be somewhat expected from young players at the skilled positions. Thirteen of those turnovers came from O'Connell interceptions, but he has thrown for 21 touchdown averaging over 204 yards/game. One of his favorite targets has been 2012 All-Region Tight End, Logan Marks. This 6'5" 244lb monster makes for a huge target for O'Connell. Marks has proven to be a valuable asset for the Tommies' offense, especially in the redzone. The senior has a team high six touchdowns on the year, along with 40 receptions (second on the team). UST's leading receiver is Dan Ferrazzo with 48 catches for 725 yards.

Junior Linebacker Tremayne Williams (32)
The main reason why St. Thomas managed to get this far is because of its defense. Including the playoffs, the Tommies have been holding teams to just 14.15 points/game. That's 11th best in the country (6th best among 2012 playoff teams). Eight of their 11 defensive starters made the all-conference team - seven of which were named to the first team. Leading the way defensively for UST has been linebacker Tremayne Williams from Appleton, WI. Oddly enough, Appleton is just up the road from Oshkosh along Lake Winnebago (which has little to do with this post, but rather a fun little nugget). The junior leads the Tommies with 49 total tackles (37 solo), and has been extremely effective filling up the team's season stat sheet: 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two ints, five pass breakups, and three forced fumbles. Williams was named to the second all-region team this season, along with teammates Ayo Idowu and Chinni Oji. Idowu has15 tackles for loss and five sacks - both are team leading. St. Thomas has been very physical upfront and extremely quick to the ball. Its defense has forced 30 turnovers this year - tied for 21st in the nation in takeaways. What St. Thomas seemingly is best at is preventing opposing offenses from converting third downs (only 27.27 percent of the time). Only five teams in the country have a better success rate this season.

2012 Statistics (National Rank)
St. Thomas Rushing Offense: 246.5 ypg (22)
Oshkosh Rushing Defense: 92.1 ypg (19)

St. Thomas Passing Offense: 227.4 ypg (79)
Oshkosh Passing Defense: 201.5 ypg (110)

St. Thomas Total Offense: 473.9 ypg (17)
Oshkosh Total Defense: 293.5 ypg (30)

St. Thomas Rushing Defense: 80.5 ypg (10)
Oshkosh Rushing Offense: 256.8 ypg (16)

St. Thomas Passing Defense: 196.5 ypg (99)
Oshkosh Passing Offense: 237.9 ypg (65)

St. Thomas Total Defense: 277.3 ypg (16)
Oshkosh Total Offense: 494.6 ypg (11)

Compared to last season, the Tommies find themselves in a very familiar situation this season. Must like last year, an undefeated WIAC team stands in the way of an undefeated UST team to move onto the Stagg Bowl. Last year the Tommies lost at Whitewater in the semis, 20-0. This season, however, St. Thomas gets to host the semi-finals (against a different WIAC team) which gives them a huge advantage over last year. I'll be interested to see how UST's offense starts off the game. It's no secret the Tommies' strength is their running game, but I bet they realize that Oshkosh is well aware of that. Last week, Linfield threw the Titans a curveball when they came out running the ball...even though the 'Cats are well known for their aerial attack. This seemed to catch Oshkosh off guard in the first half, before adjustments were made. I'm curious if UST will apply the same concept and attempt a few play-action passes in their first drive - hoping the catch UWO's safeties cheating in to stop the run. This game might possibly come down to turnovers. If that's the case, Oshkosh is one of the best teams in the country at ball security (+18 turnover margin). While St. Thomas has been one of the worst (+1 turnover margin). If the Tommies make a habit of giving Oshkosh the ball with only half the field to work with Saturday, the Titans will be going to the Stagg Bowl.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Third-Round Matchup: Linfield College

Take a look around D3 football, it's tough to find a more consistent program than Linfield College. I understand that Mount Union has seemingly won 132 Stagg Bowls since 1993, and that St. Johns has had the winningest coach in college football history. Or that nobody has a higher winning percentage than Wittenberg. Even so.... for decades now, you can set your clock to the Wildcats putting a very talented product on the field year in and year out. Even the most casual D3 football fans are well aware of Linfield's 57 consecutive winning season streak (1956 - present). Which is the longest in college football history (regardless of division). The Wildcats have accomplished this while completing in the fifth all-time toughest conference (Northwest Conference) in the country, according to D3football.com. Want some more consistency? In that 57-year span, LC has managed to win 35 conference titles (that's more than any WIAC football school). Linfield has also made the playoffs nine times since 1999, while winning the Stagg Bowl in 2004. Of those those nine seasons, they've lost in the first round only once! During their time in the NAIA, the Wildcats made the postseason 15 times from 1961 to and 1994. Even more impressive is they played in the championship game six of those 15 seasons, winning it three times ('82, 84 and '86).

I know, I know...what Linfield has accomplished in the past has little to do with this Saturday's game. So, looking at this year's team, the Wildcats come into this quarterfinal game with a perfect 11-0 record and are ranked third in the country. Of the four No. 1 seeds in the playoffs, Linfield has - by far - the toughest road to Salem. Two weeks ago the 'Cats barely escaped a first-round exit against a vengeful Pacific Lutheran team, 27-24. Meanwhile the other three No. 1 seeds won their first-round game by an average of almost 43 points. That's not to say that Linfield is inferior. What I am saying is that Linfield's geographic location can probably be blamed for the tough game, considering that only 6.2% of D3 football programs share the same timezone as Linfield. With the NCAA trying to save money on traveling, Linfield gets the misfortune of playing a team in close proximity in the first round. Rather than the weakest team in their region, necessarily. In round two they beat the perennial powerhouse North Central College. The only reason why NCC came to McMinnville this early was because the Cardinals lost twice in the regular season. Many, including myself, thought this would be a very tough game for Linfield. However, the 'Cats took care of the Cardinals 30-14 in what was considered a down year for North Central. Still, I'm sure coach Joe Smith wasn't crazy about seeing NCC in the second round.

Defensive End Brynnan Hyland

Usually I start with the offense, but in Linfield's case, I'm eager to elaborate on their defense. The Wildcats have a young man who just may be unblockable. Brynnan Hyland leads the country with 17.5 (16 solo) sacks this season. That's almost 1.6/game. The 6'2" 240lb junior defensive end only had one game this year where he didn't plant the QB in the ground. That was against Pacific Lutheran two weeks ago. As a team, LC has 60 sacks on the year (59 according to the NCAA). That's 12 more than any other D3 team!!! In fact, four Wildcats have six or more sacks on the season: Mark Randall (6), Brian Dundas (7), KeAlii Poomaihealani (9), and Hyland (17.5). So if Hyland isn't going to beat you, odds are someone else will. I suppose it goes without saying that Linfield also leads the nation in Tackles for Loss with 121 (11/game). The next closest is Wartburg with 104. I counted 10 different 'Cats with five or more tackles for loss this year. I say why not just let LC's front six take turns lining up next to the opposing team's running back? The stats suggest they'll be spending most of the time in the backfield anyway....why deny the inevitable? Eight different members of the Wildcats' defense were mentioned on this year's All-NWC list. Looking at what Linfield has accomplished thus far, it's hard to imagine that they've been without their preseason All-American DT Tyler Steele. As a junior, Steele lead the team with 13 sacks last year. Steele suffered a season-ending knee injury during week three of this year. Linfield's leading tackler this season is Dominique Forrest with 78 tackles (38 solo). The 5'11' 210lb linebacker also leads the team with four interceptions, along with 8.5 tackles for loss (second on the team).  In fact, the NWC named Forrest the Defensive MVP this season.

Senior Quarterback Mickey Inns
Linfield's offense is lead by quarterback - and NWC Offensive MVP - Mickey Inns. The senior has thrown for 3041 yards (276.5/game) and 29 touchdowns with six interceptions this season. Those 3041 yards is the 12th most in the country for quarterbacks. Linfield doesn't have one wide receiver that can beat you... but rather they have three. All of whom have 45 or more receptions on the season. Deidre Wiersma has 55 receptions for 617 yards and seven touchdowns. Charlie Poppen has caught 51 for 801 yards and nine TDs. Finally, Lucas Jepson has 621 receiving yards on 45 receptions with four touchdowns. All three receivers are mentioned in the All-NWC team. In fact, just like the defense, a total of eight offensive Linfield players made the all-conference team this season. It goes with out saying that Linfield's passing game is what makes this offense dangerous. The Wildcats are averaging about 41.8 points per game, which ranks them seventh in the country. At the start of the season Linfield displayed a very balanced offensive attack, but that all changed when all-conference running back Josh Hill - much like Steele - had a season-ending injury in week three. The senior was averaging over 133 yards per game before getting hurt. Taking Hill's place is 5'7" 190lb freshman John Shaffer, who is averaging a little over 42 yards per game with seven touchdowns. Based on these lopsided stats, it's easy to see that Linfield's running game hasn't been exactly the focal point of its offense since Hill's injury. But rather it's a complimentary weapon to their potent passing game (i.e. their passing game sets up their run, not the other way around).

2012 Statistics (National Rank)
Linfield Rushing Offense: 132.6 ypg (140)
Oshkosh Rushing Defense: 89.7 ypg (17)

Linfield Passing Offense: 317.6 ypg (15)
Oshkosh Passing Defense: 197.7 ypg (99)

Linfield Total Offense: 450.2 ypg (32)
Oshkosh Total Defense: 287.3 ypg (25)

Linfield Rushing Defense: 79.4 ypg (10)
Oshkosh Rushing Offense: 263.3 ypg (14)

Linfield Passing Defense: 210.8 ypg (149)
Oshkosh Passing Offense: 237.9 ypg (66)

Linfield Total Defense: 290.2 ypg (29)
Oshkosh Total Offense: 501.2 ypg (9)

When I first filled out my D3 bracket I had Oshkosh winning this game. After reading up on Linfield, and attending the Oshkosh/Bethel game last week, my confidence level in Oshkosh has subsided a bit. Bethel ranks 109th in passing offense this season and just tore a part Oshkosh's secondary in the first half last weekend. Given that the Wildcats have the 15th best passing offense in D3, I thought to my self, "Jeesh!! If Bethel can have this kind of success in Oshkosh, I'm afraid to see what Linfield will do when they go to McMinnville next week." Bethel wide receiver Mitch Hollstrom torched the Titans for 133 yards on nine catches, along with two touchdowns last week. However, Oshkosh's defense managed to do a complete one-eighty after the half. They held the Royals to just 41 yards of offense in the the second half!! Earlier in the season, when they hosted Platteville, Oshkosh has faced a very similar spread offense to Linfield's. UWP ranks sixth in the country in passing (344.7 yards/game), and ninth in scoring (41/game). In that matchup, the Titans held Bryce Corrigan to just 203 yards passing, 0 TD's and three interceptions as they won 34-13. I know Oshkosh is capable of playing a shut-down defense, but the question is: Can they do it consistently?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Second-Round Matchup: Bethel University

I don't think there's a team in this year's playoffs that's had a more controversial way of making the field of 32 than Bethel University. A very strong argument can be had that the Royals received a Pool C bid largely because they were on the favorable end of an unsportsmanlike conduct call back on October 6th against Concordia-Moorhead. Bethel's homecoming no less. On the final play of the game, down 14-7, the Royals' quarterback Erik Peterson was sacked and fumbled the ball. Only to have the Cobbers pick it up and return it for a touchdown, supposedly winning the game 21-7. However, while the ball was in play, numerous Concordia players rushed the field to celebrate only to get flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. With the penalty, Bethel got the ball back and a second chance to score with zeros on the clock (given that the game cannot end on a defensive penalty). As you probably already know the Royals went on to score as well as convert the two-point conversion, winning the game 15-14*. In my opinion this is one of the more remarkable finishes I have ever seen in a football game.

Bethel went on to finish the season 8-2, and received a Pool C playoff bid. The two Royals' losses were against St. Thomas (37-0) and St. Olaf (24-17). Bethel went into that Concordia-Moorhead game undefeated. So it's tough to say, with any certainty, that the remainder of their games would have turned out the same way if Bethel would have lost that crazy homecoming game. However, it's save to assume that Bethel would have lost to the Tommies, regardless of that game's outcome. Although, the St. Olaf game was very winnable, and I would bet the Royals would love to have that game back. If Concordia-Moorhead's bench would have stayed on the sideline, there's a good chance Bethel would finish with three losses. Rendering them out of Pool C contention. Not only that, odds are Concordia-Moorhead would have finished with a 9-1 record and would be a front runner for a Pool C bid....leaving Bethel at home to watch the playoffs. I don't mean to beat this topic to death, but it's just fascinating how that one sideline mistake decided the fate of two football programs this season. Don't get me wrong, Bethel is a very good football team, and that game was not the only reason why they made the playoffs. The Royals had some very good wins against programs like Wartburg (27-0), Augsburg (21-20), and St. John's (27-22). They finished second in what's rated the third toughest conference in the DIII, Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Not to mention they had a very impressive road playoff win against undefeated Concordia-Chicago (24-23) last Saturday.

Hallstrom's touchdown against Concordia-Chicago
In years past Bethel has typically been a run heavy offense. This year however they seem to provide a more balanced attack to their opposition. The Royals won't exactly blow you away on offense, but they do have some dangerous play makers. One of those is wide receiver Mitch Hallstrom, who led the MIAC in receptions with 69 this season (including last week's playoff game). The 6'2" junior has a great set of hands, and has 30 more receptions than the next closest Bethel wideout. Oddly enough, Hallstrom's first touchdown of the year came in last week's first-round game at Concordia-Chicago. He finished the game with eight catches, 100 yards and a touchdown. The junior also threw a 23-yard touchdown pass in the game as well. Hallstrom has been far and away the favorite target of quarterback of Erik Peterson. The sophomore has thrown for 14 touchdowns and six interceptions on the year, and led the MIAC with a 66.9% completion percentage. His six picks are the second lowest in the conference. Peterson is also a threat beyond the line of scrimmage as he leads the team with eight rushing touchdowns. Freshman Marshall Klitzke is the team leader in rushing yards with 487. The 5'8" 181lb back has four touchdowns on the year.

Mathis (#5) knocks the ball lose against St. Thomas
Bethel predicates themselves as a defensively sound team. The Royals only give up 18.5 points/game, and 179.5 yards passing/game. Both of which are good enough for second in the MIAC. They have accounted for 16 interceptions on the year, best in the conference. One player in particular to keep an eye on Saturday is Inside Linebacker Seth Mathis. He's something special. The 6'3" 240lb junior leads the team in total tackles (120), solo tackles (49), interceptions (5), pass breakups (7) and forced fumbles (3). Only one other player in the MIAC has more total tackles than Mathis (Hamline's Page has 127). Those five interceptions is the second most among linebackers in the country (MHB's Javicz has seven). The junior has been the heart and soul of this defense, and will do his best keeping this prolific Oshkosh offense in check. Along side Mathis on the field is linebacker Kyle Asmus. The junior leads the Bethel defense with 4.5 sacks this season. If there's one area of concern for the Royals it would be their field goal unit. During the regular season the Royals had only kicked three field goals on six attempts. All three makes came inside the redzone. On the other hand, why even consider attempting a FG when you have the second highest fourth-down efficiency rate in the country (15 of 20 - 75%). Infact, the top three teams in DIII in fourth-down efficiency are all from the MIAC (Concordia-Moorhead - 79%, Bethel - 75%, and Augsburg - 75%). They've also only managed to make 86% of their extra points (30 of 35), which is second worst in the MIAC. If Bethel finds themselves with a fourth-down situation, between Oshkosh's 40 and 20 yard line, expect for them to go for it. They trust their defense enough if they are unable to pickup the first.

2012 Statistics (National Rank)
Bethel Rushing Offense: 138.5 ypg (135)
Oshkosh Rushing Defense: 95.3 ypg (22)

Bethel Passing Offense: 195.2 ypg (119)
Oshkosh Passing Defense: 190.9 ypg (88)

Bethel Total Offense: 333.6 ypg (146)
Oshkosh Total Defense: 286.2 ypg (28)

Bethel Rushing Defense: 124.5 ypg (61)
Oshkosh Rushing Offense: 266.3 ypg (14)

Bethel Passing Defense: 179.5 ypg (60)
Oshkosh Passing Offense: 238.5 ypg (66)

Bethel Total Defense: 303.9 ypg (43)
Oshkosh Total Offense: 504.7 ypg (9)

With a nationally ranked rushing offense of 135th, it's easy to see why Bethel's Time of Possession ranks 195th out of 239 DIII teams (27:58). If the Royals are unable to sustain any significant drives this Saturday on offensive look for Oshkosh to wear down this Bethel defense. I think the last thing coach Steve Johnson wants to see is All American Nate Wara on the field for 32 plus minutes. This could be the last home game for this senior driven Oshkosh team. A NCC upset at Linfield will be the only way Oshkosh gets a home game in round three of the playoffs.

* The touchdown and two-point conversion, following the penalty, are at the :55 mark on this video link. However, I highly recommend watching the entire video. Wide receiver Mitch Hallstrom makes one of the better one-handed grabs in double coverage that you will ever see. That catch setup the play that lead to the penalty and game winning touchdown.