Dec. 4, 2009

By John Roach
Special To

DOVER, Del. -
Wesley College has been here before. The Wolverines, ranked No. 3 nationally in Division III, are in the NCAA playoffs for the fifth straight season, in the quarterfinals for the fourth time in five years and are hoping for their third trip to the national semifinals during that time.

Wesley, 12-0, will host upstart 10-2 Johns Hopkins on Saturday at noon eastern in the South Region Championship game at Scott D. Miller Stadium in Dover, Delaware.

Unlike Wesley, Johns Hopkins has never been here before. Well, not exactly. It’s true, the unranked Blue Jays, in just the school’s second NCAA playoff appearance, have advanced further into the playoffs than any team in school history. But while a national quarterfinal playoff game may be new territory, being a visiting underdog is not.

The Blue Jays are the only team to win two playoff road games against unbeaten opponents in the D-III playoffs this season. Albright is the only other team with two road playoff victories, but Albright’s opponents each had one loss.

Johns Hopkins upset 14th-ranked host Hampden-Sydney, 23-7, in the first round before shocking 10th-ranked host Thomas More last week, 31-29, on a last-second 43-yard field goal by Alex Lachman as time expired.

Can coach Jim Margraff’s team claim a third straight road playoff upset? The outcome likely will be determined by a battle of strength vs. strength – Wesley’s nationally ranked defense vs. Johns Hopkins’ varied offense.

“Johns Hopkins is a great team,” said Wesley coach Mike Drass. “You don’t defeat two undefeated teams in the playoffs if you’re not great. We have our work cut out for us.”

The Wolverines, under coach Mike Drass, currently lead Division III in tackles for loss with 10.08 per game, and have had at least eight in all but one game this season. Wesley also ranks in the top 15 nationally in four other defensive categories: third in sacks (3.67 per game), fifth in scoring defense (11.17 points per game), ninth in rushing defense (73.25 yards per game), and 13th in total defense (255.33 yards per game).

Sophomore defensive end Chris Mayes leads D-III with 2.54 tackles for loss per game, and the Wolverines have allowed just two teams to top 100 yards rushing this season.

Johns Hopkins has faced stout defenses before. With 107 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s second-round upset, senior Andrew Kase became the first running back to top 100 yards against St. Thomas More this season. Kase, the Centennial Conference Offensive Player of the Year, has 1,487 rushing yards and 24 total touchdowns this season.

The Blue Jays, whose five offensive linemen received all-conference recognition, average 32.8 points, and twice topped 50 points this year. Their balanced attack averages 172.6 yards rushing and 226.7 yards passing behind sophomore quarterback Hewitt Tomlin (a school-record 2,556 yards passing) and wide receiver Dan Crowley (68 receptions, 962 yards, and five touchdowns).  

Johns Hopkins has reached at least 400 yards of total offense in a school-record five straight games.

Wesley’s offense can hardly be overlooked, though. The Wolverines, behind quarterback Shane McSweeny, scored on their first seven possessions in their second-round 43-9 victory over Mississippi College. Wesley defeated North Carolina Wesleyan, 55-23, in the first round.

McSweeny is a two-time Atlantic Central Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year. Junior wide receiver Ellis Krout caught 51 passes for 808 yards and a school-record 20 touchdowns this season.  

Wesley has won 11 postseason games over the last five years. Only Mount Union (national champion in ’05, ’06, ’08) and UW-Whitewater (’07), who combined have won the last four D-III national titles, have more victories during that span. The school’s perfect regular season was its second since moving to D-III in 1986; the 2006 team reached the national semifinals.

This is the first-ever meeting between the two teams, both of whom beat three Top 25 teams during the season. Their one common opponent this season was Delaware Valley; Wesley won, 31-13, while Johns Hopkins lost, 23-7.

“This group of players really wants to test themselves against the best," said Johns Hopkins coach Jim Margraff. "You can see how good Wesley is and you want to find out how good you can be.”  

The winner of Saturday’s game will advance to a national semifinal match-up against either top-ranked, defending national champion Mount Union or Albright, who play in a quarterfinal playoff game Saturday.