|by Howard Hewitt • November 17, 2011|
Illinois College will bring its explosive offense to Crawfordsville Saturday to test Wabash’s often-dominating defense. The first-round NCAA Division 3 playoff appearance is the first ever for the Blueboys. Saturday’s game is the sixth Little Giant playoff berth since 2002.
The 9-1 Blueboys are the first at-large representative from the Midwest Conference. Their only loss was a drubbing at the hands of conference champion Monmouth. The 10-0 Little Giants are on a roll after clinching the North Coast Athletic Conference championship over Wittenberg then crushing rival DePauw a week ago.
Kickoff is at noon Saturday on the Wabash campus. Tickets are $8 to the NCAA event. No passes will be honored for this game. You can watch the game on Wabash live streaming video here.
The Blueboys are led by freshman quarterback Michael Bates. The Auburn, Ill, student completed 62 percent of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns. He has run for almost 500 yards and scored four touchdowns rushing.
“He has been fantastic,” Wabash Coach Erik Raeburn said. “He’s really athletic and has really helped them in the run game as well. They have been able to have really good balance on offense; they have averaged about 200 yards on the ground and 300 yards passing per game, so they have been dynamic on that side of the football this season.”
For the Little Giants, it all starts with stopping the run. “We have played our best when we have limited teams rushing the football; that will be true this week, too. If they are able to have balance, you are in big trouble. First and foremost, we have to do a good job against the run; slow their tailback down and not let their quarterback gash us for any big runs. If we are able to do that, then we have a chance to change up our coverages and come with some pressure to try and affect the passing game.”
IC averages 41 points a game but has allowed opponents to score 32. The mismatch shows up on Wabash’s side of the ledger. The Little Giants score at a 34-a-game clip, but have allowed an average of just 10 points. The Little Giant D has allowed five rushing touchdowns and six passing scores all season.
Blueboy Coach Garrett Campbell recognized the Little Giant defense was going to be a challenge. “They’re big, they’re strong and fast and they blitz the heck out of the quarterback. We’ve got to be able to protect the quarterback. We’ve to go get some completions.”
Last week against DePauw in the Monon Bell Classic, the Little Giant offense disappeared but the defense dominated, scoring 28 of the 45 points.
“DePauw is very good on defense,” Raeburn said. “In the second and third quarters, we were going into the wind and the wind was significant, so we just had to try and run the football and not attempt too many passes. We felt like the only way for them to get back into the game was for us to be stupid and turn the ball over. We felt the best chance to not do that was to run the football and if they stopped us, hopefully we could get a good punt offense and let our defense go back out there.
“Were we happy offensively after the game? I’m not sure we played fantastic on offense, but we didn’t turn the ball over. At the end of the first quarter, it was 24-0, so in the second and third quarters, with the wind, it just made sense with the way our defense was playing to play conservatively on offense.”
But Raeburn knows his club will have to be better offensively this week playing a team that can score a lot of points in a hurry. He hopes playoff intensity will bring out the best in his team on both sides of the ball.
“We will be playing three emotional games in a row and you are due for a letdown. It’s hard to keep getting up like that. But sometimes, having big games against good opponents can keep you sharp. You become used to playing against tough competition. If we played some lesser teams and had some lopsided games the last few weeks and our guys weren’t playing a lot, you can get sloppy and lose your edge. So it could be a disadvantage, but I kind of think it’s an advantage to play that sort of game to get your team used to that environment.”
Illinois College, in Jacksonville, has similar enrollment to Wabash. The three-and-half hour drive is less than the Blueboys take for some of their regular conference road games. IC has planned at least one fan bus for its students.
The Blueboys will spend part of that ride to Indiana worrying about what to do with Wes Chamblee. Teams have kicked to him this year and paid with big returns. Allegheny went to great lengths to kick away from the South Bend senior and gave up significant field position.
Blueboy Coach Campbell has already expressed concerns about dealing with the talented Little Giant, calling him “Devin Hester” like. Chicago Bear Hester is the NFL’s premier return man. Chamblee has returned three punts for touchdowns this year, including one last week. Chamblee averages nearly 23 yards per punt return. He also has a kickoff return for a touchdown.
“I can’t believe that there would be a better kick returner in Division III than Wes,” Raeburn said. “We feel like every time he touches the ball, he has the chance to take it the distance. In the passing game, we didn’t throw many passes last week, but I know the defense was worried about him, and that helps us in the running game.”
The other big intangible in a playoff game is playing an opponent you know little about. Wabash and IC last played in 1950. The Blueboys have never participated in a playoff game. Wabash defeated the only Midwest Conference school it has played in post-season competition, a 42-7 win over MacMurray College in 2002.
“They haven’t played anyone who is very similar to us, and I’m sure they are watching our film and thinking that we haven’t played anyone who is like them,” Raeburn said. “There is some uncertainty there on how they will try to defend us or what they will do offensively to attack us.”
One of the nation’s best offensive attacks versus one of Division 3’s best defenses should be quite a show for a big Hollett Little Giant Stadium crowd.