Dec. 5, 2009

Sidebar: Rough Conditions Plague Matchup


By John Roach
Special to

DOVER, Del. -
The surprising route taken by unranked Johns Hopkins to the NCAA Division III quarterfinals against No. 3-ranked Wesley wasn’t lost on the home crowd. One Wesley supporter held aloft a homemade sign that read, “Hey, Cinderella, it’s Midnight.”

Mother Nature took Cinderella’s side briefly, as freezing wind and a driving rain led to a sloppy first half featuring a combined five fumbles and two interceptions. But powerhouse Wesley capitalized on two key plays to claim a 12-0 win and advance to a national semifinal match-up against defending champion Mount Union, a 55-3 winner against Albright. The game is scheduled for noon on Saturday at Mount Union.

The two teams ping-ponged mostly between midfield until early in the second quarter, when Johns Hopkins tried a fake punt on fourth-and-2 from its own 22-yard line. Wesley hoped to sneak the play past an aggressive Wesley rush, but up-man Michael Murray made a big mistake before the play that the Wolverine sideline noticed instantly.

“He took off his gloves,” said Wesley coach Mike Drass. “When we saw that, we started screaming to our kids, ‘Fake! It’s a fake!’”

JHU punter Max Islinger jumped high in a vain effort to fool the rush as if missing a bad snap, but Murray got mauled for a six-yard loss on the play. The Wolverines took possession and scored on the fifth consecutive Aaron Jackson carry — a 4-yard run — to take a 6-0 lead into halftime.

“When we turned around in the second quarter, the wind and rain were blowing right in our faces,” said Johns Hopkins coach Jim Margraff. “Because of that, we knew Wesley was only going to need to drive just 15-20 yards to get into four-down territory. So we thought we’d take a chance with the fake.”

The game’s second pivotal play occurred early in the third quarter after Johns Hopkins’ Mike Mahon returned receiver Sean McAndrews’ fumble 29 yards to the Wesley 43. But the Blue Jays couldn’t capitalize, and their punt four plays later was blocked by Wesley’s Aaron Benson, recovered by Leonard Stevenson, and returned 15 yards to the JHU 28.

“I saw on the punt before the block that the guy blocking Leonard and me only stepped out a little,” said Benson. “So I moved out two steps wider, he blocked Leonard, and I got it. Then I thought Leonard might take it in.”

The Blue Jays scored five plays later on a 3-yard touchdown run by quarterback Shane McSweeny on a fourth-and-2 play.

Johns Hopkins had one last chance to rally after linebacker Colin Wixted intercepted a McSweeny pass along the sideline. On the ensuing possession, JHU drove to the Wesley 10-yard line, but on fourth-and-inches, the Blue Jays suffered a delay-of-game penalty. From the 15, quarterback Hewitt Tomlin’s pass was dropped at the 3 by receiver Dan Crowley.

“It looked like we were going to capitalize on the pick,” said Wixted, who finished with nine tackles, a sack, and the interception, “but what can you do?”

The weather factored into the game’s overall sloppiness. Johns Hopkins finished with five fumbles (though only one lost) and one interception, while Wesley had three fumbles (two lost) and two interceptions.

“The elements were crazy out there,” said Wesley’s Drass. “You could pretty much throw out the scouting reports. Whatever team made the least mistakes was going to win on a day like today.”

“During the game, you don’t want to acknowledge it, but now that it’s over, I can say it — it was tough out there,” said JHU quarterback Tomlin, who finished 9-of-26 passing for 86 yards and one interception.

Wesley dominated statistically—gaining 322 total yards compared to 136 for JHU—but the Blue Jay defense kept the game close. “Our defense was spectacular,” said Johns Hopkins coach Margraff. “It’s what we build our team around — guys like Colin [Wixted] and Glenn Rocca.”

The Wolverines will now visit unbeaten defending champion Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio next Saturday for the right to play in the Division III national championship. “Our goal is to be the best team in the country,” said Wesley’s Drass. “And to do that, you have to beat the best team in the country. That’s everything we talk about here.”