NCAA Division-III Playoffs: R. 3, Little Giants v. Tommies
NCAA Division-III Football Playoffs
No. 7 Wabash Little Giants (12-0)
No. 3 St. Thomas Tommies (12-0)
How They Got Here:
The Wabash Little Giants went undefeated on their way to the North Coast Athletic Conference championship. It was a high-powered offense and dominating defense that led the Little Giants as the team scored at least 34-points in every game during the season, with their closest margin of victory being 24-points.
In the first round of the NCAA Division-III football playoffs, Wabash downed No. 20 Albion 35-14. Albion led 7-6 heading into halftime, and increased their lead to 14-6 with an early third quarter score, but the Little Giants followed with 29 unanswered points on their way to victory. Mason Zurek had four second half touchdowns, including a 70-yarder to ice the game. Zurek finished with 326-yards and 4 scores on 39-carries.
The No. 9 Thomas More Saints were their Round 2 foe. For the second time in the playoffs the Little Giants found themselves trailing at half, as three second quarter touchdowns gave the Saints the 27-13 lead. Once again the Wabash defense responded in the second half, completely shutting down the Thomas More offense, and the Little Giants responded with 20 unanswered points in the 33-27 win.
The game winning touchdown came as Thomas More was moving in for the winning score in overtime. The Saints had moved to the Wabash 11, where they were second and 9. Quarterback Brenan Kuntz was sacked for a 13-yard loss by junior linebacker LV Bowden. The sack forced a fumble and Ethan Buresh recovered and raced 75-yards for the winning score. Zurek finished with 193-yards and a score on 35-carries, and the defense forced two fumbles, intercepted three passes and sacked Kuntz three times.
The St. Thomas Tommies dominated the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) on their way to a 10-0 season. The Tommies led the nation in scoring offense and finished third in scoring defense. They allowed no more than 14-points to any opponent during the season, with seven being held to single digits or no points. The offense was an absolute juggernaut, scoring at least 51-points in seven games.
In the first round of the NCAA Division-III football playoffs the La Verne Leopards, winners of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, were dominated by the Tommies 57-14. St. Thomas jumped out to a 21-o lead as RB Jordan Roberts scored the first two touchdowns of the game. QB John Gould threw for 310-yards and 2 scores and Charlie Dowdle and Nick Waldvogel each had over 100-yards receiving.
In Round 2, St. Thomas welcomed MIAC rival St. John’s and rode their punishing defense to a 38-19 victory. Roberts helped to stake the Tommies to the early 22-0 lead with two one-yard touchdown runs. He would add another one-yard score in the second half. The defense held the Johnnies to 260-yards of offense, recorded three sacks and made two interceptions.
Keys to the Game:
QB Rice Connor is a solid performer, but he is not a game-changer. That falls on the shoulders of RB Mason Zurek. He must have a huge game if the Little Giants are going to be able to keep moving the chains and keep the Tommies offense off of the field. If Wabash has to throw to win, they are done.
While the Tommies are loaded in many areas, it is their special teams that rips the hearts out of their opponents. They use the fake to perfection and have great coverage on returns. Wabash must contain returners, stop the fake extra-points and field goals, and get good field position on their kicks.
Pressure on John Gould is tough, as the Tommies have a great offensive line, but Connor Karns is the kind of force that disrupt a team’s rhythm. Along with Connor Ludwig and Tyler McCullen, the Little Giants will need to get a lot of pressure in Gould’s face and contain the running of Roberts.
The Little Giants have had to battle back from second half deficits in each of their first two playoff games. They have shown great resilience but simply cannot afford to do this against St. Thomas. They need a halftime lead to pull off the upset.
For the St. Thomas Tommies, the key to their success starts with simply playing their game. Their home stadium is one of the best home field advantages in Division-III and that can be a little unhinging for opponents. This is quite possibly the best team in the country, so they need to play their game and not worry if things don’t go well early on.
Look for junior Nick Waldvogel and senior Charlie Dowdle to be huge keys for St. Thomas. The Wabash defense is sure to get some pressure on Gould, so he will his two favorite targets to get open. Dowdle is a load to try to pull down and has incredible hands. Waldvogel can do it all and finds ways to get open to move the chains.
Linebacker Jesse Addo makes big plays, and has a nose for getting behind the line of scrimmage and making tackles before plays can even develop. He must be accounted for on every play or Zurek is going to struggle all day.
Outlook: The Wabash Little Giants have proven to be resilient, battling back from 14-points down to beat Thomas More. They will be behind entering the second half here as well, but there will be no second half heroics. Take the St. Thomas Tommies in dominating fashion, 41-17.
By Robert Pannier