Match-up: On Saturday at 1 PM Eastern time the Wheaton College Thunder (College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, 10-0, 7-0) will welcome Benedictine University (Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference, 6-4, 5-1) to Wheaton, IL for the first round of the Division-III football playoffs. Wheaton enters the contest as the No. 8 team in the latest D3Football poll. Benedictine is not ranked, but after starting out 0-3, they have won six of 7 games, including a 16-0 victory over Lakeland for the conference title.
Coaches: Jon Cooper has been the Benedictine Eagles head football coach for 10 seasons. He has a 55-47 career record, and is the winningest coach in the school’s history. He has been named the conference Coach of the Year twice (2010, 2011), and this is his third time that he has led the team to the playoffs.
Mike Swider is in his 19th season as the head coach for the Wheaton Thunder. He boasts a very impressive 158-43 record in his time at the school, and this is his 1oth trip to the playoffs. He, too, is the winningest coach in the school’s history and his 78.6 winning percentage is one of the best in Division-III history. He has one semifinal and one quarterfinal appearance in the playoffs.
Ryan Keener is the leader of the Benedictine Eagles offense. The senior quarterback passed for 1765 yards during the season, with 16 touchdowns and a 57.8 completion percentage. He also gained 239 yards on the ground with three scores.
The Eagles are not a particularly prolific team on the ground. Senior Artie Monaco led the team in rushing with 550 yards on 134 carries, and he scored four touchdowns. Monaco has also proven to be an outstanding punt return man, averaging 18.6 yards per return and he has a touchdown. Anthony Mitchell will split time with him, and he is a capable backup, rushing for 349 yards and two scores.
Keener’s favorite target is senior wide out Greg German, who caught 48 balls for 887 yards, a very gaudy 18.5 yards per catch average. He also had nine touchdown receptions. Max Seibert was second on the team in receptions with 33 for 326 yards.
On defense the Eagles are rock solid and it begins with safety Jarrett Lecas. The sophomore is quickly establishing himself as one of the best defensive backs in the country, and he can do it all. Lecas’ 6 interceptions leads the team, and ranks him sixth in the country. He also had 4 pass breakups and 10 defenses. He leads the team with 95 tackles. Sophomore linebacker Micayel McKechnie is second on the team in tackles with 65, and he also recovered two fumbles.
Junior defensive lineman Alex Davis has a motor that won’t quit, and that has shown in his 9.5 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 52 tackles. Joining Davis on the defensive line is junior Niko Paaloalo, who has 5 sacks and 53 tackles. His long reach has allowed him to disrupt quarterback throws as well, batting down four passes.
The Eagles have proven to be a defense that makes their own breaks. They have 24 sacks on the season, 16 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries. Their front group can bring the heat, meaning they don’t have to send additional men, thus making them deadly in pass defense.
The Wheaton Thunder are a very difficult team to defend against because they can play two different quarterbacks and use two primary running backs. Johnny Peltz is their primary QB, and he is a duel threat, passing for 1167 yards and adding 478 more on the ground. He scored 6 touchdowns and threw for 11 more. Peltz is incredibly poised and reads defenses well, completing 67.6 percent of his passes with only 1 interception in 142 attempts.
Reece Butler will also see time at the quarterback position. He threw for 1040 yards and 7 touchdowns with just 3 interceptions in 135 attempts. His completion percentage is outstanding as well at 63.7 percent.
At running back the Thunder have Jesse Geary and Danny Puknaitis. Geary gained 549 yards this season with 5 TDs, and enters the playoffs with a 4.0 per carry average. Puknaitis gained 430 yards for a 5.2 yards per carry average, and he scored twice.
Six different Wheaton receivers caught at least 17 passes, with Luke Thorson leading the way with 56 receptions for 716 yards and 12 touchdowns. Keegan Kemp made 40 catches for 618 yards and two touchdowns.
On defense, junior linebacker Adam Dansdill lead the team with an incredible 115 tackles, which is ranked in the top-10 nationally. The junior is simply relentless and can attack the quarterback (1 sack), cover (1 interception, 8 pass breakups, 9 defenses), and has incredible open field tackling skills. Dansdill is head of an incredible group of linebackers.
This is probably the most dynamic group of linebackers in the country. Mikey Swider is another guy who can do it all. He has 91 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 8 total breakups/defenses. Caleb Ashby has 58 tackles, an interception and 2 fumble recoveries. Logan McCrae leads the team with 8 sacks and recorded 56 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 5 pass breakups and 5 defenses. Combined the four have over 300 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 38 breakups/defenses and 5 forced fumbles. They make things happen.
We would be remiss if we did not mention DE and captain, Jared Todd. The senior has seven sacks this season with 8 quarterback hits. He has also batted away 6 pass attempts, and anchors a very solid defensive line that does not get enough credit because of how dominant the linebackers are.
Benedictine: 341.9 yards per game. 21.6 points per game
Wheaton: 240.9 yards per game, 29.9 points per game
Benedictine: 240.8 yards per game, 15.6 points allowed per game
Wheaton: 200.6 yards per game, 13.7 points allowed per game
Outlook: The Benedictine Eagles have a great defense that gets pressure on the quarterback and makes things happen. They have the skill players to make a difference. The Wheaton Thunder are incredibly good, with a defense that has playmakers all over the field. They get a big edge on offense. Wheaton is going to win this game, but it will closer than many will think. Take the Thunder 24-14.
Tomorrow’s Previews on the Minor League Sports Report will look at:
Wisconsin-Whitewater vs. Macalester
Wabash vs. Franklin
St. John’s vs. St. Scholastica
Warburg vs. St. Thomas
By Robert Pannier