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Wayne Cavadi | | November 13, 2016

Schools to watch in the DIII football championships

  University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is one of the many teams to watch in the DIII football tournament.

This past weekend saw the reigning DIII National Champion Mount Union Purple Raiders' historic winning streak come to an end. It has left many questions marks heading into the playoffs in a field that many find to be as wide open as it has ever been. With the Selection Show in the books and the brackets set, here are some teams to watch as the DIII playoffs get underway next weekend.

John Carroll University (first-round opponent: Olivet): The big news of the weekend, of course, was JCU’s defeat of perenial contender Mount Union. Fueled by an 18-point fourth quarter, JCU ended the Purple Raiders' 112-game regular season winning streak and captured its first Ohio Athletic Conference title since 1994. Despite dropping its opening game of the season to tournament bound Wisconsin-Oshkosh, JCU reeled off nine consecutive wins to take home the OAC crown.

JCU did it behind a top-10 scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 12.4 points a contest, while allowing just 225.7 yards a game, good for sixth best in the nation. Offensively, it is led by the dynamic running back duo junior Ro Golphin (917 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns) and sophomore Sam Kukura (691 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns).

Mount Union (first-round opponent: Hobart): Despite dropping their first game since 2005 and not claiming at least a stake in the OAC title for the first time since 1991, the Purple Raiders are still very much a force to reckoned with come late November and December. They will look to make their 12th consecutive trip to the Stagg Bowl, as head coach Vince Kehres looks to repeat for the first time since taking the helms from his legendary father Larry Kehres.

Mount Union leads a balanced attack with both the third best scoring offense and defense in the nation. It has scored 49.2 points a contest while holding its opponents to just 9.7 points each weekend. Senior running back Bradley Mitchell paced the offense, rushing for 1,198 yards and 15 touchdowns. Sophomore linebacker Danny Robinson has had a well-balanced season himself, finding himself second on the team in tackles (57) while tacking on 2.5 sacks and three interceptions. 

RELATED: DIII championship bracket | Press release

Wisconsin-Whitewater (first-round opponent: Lakeland): UWW flourished under Lance Leipold, squaring off against Mount Union for the DIII championship in nine out of 10 seasons under his guidance and winning six of those contests. Leipold left last season for DI, and the Warhawks missed out on attempting their three-peat. Trailing by three points at the end of the first half, the Warhawks reeled off 24 unanswered second-half points to finish the regular season undefeated and ready to make their run back to Salem. 

Sophomore 1,000-yard rusher Drew Patterson helped keep the offense rolling while scoring 13 touchdowns. UWW's defense has been a turnover machine the entire season with a 2.20 turnover margin, third best in the nation. Senior defensive back Colin Buck did his part to help the big differential, picking off seven passes this season while defending nine more. 

Linfield (first-round opponent: Hardin-Simmons): Quick trivia question: What was the last team to win a DIII national championship not named Mount Union or Whitewater? That’s right, it is the eight-time defending Northwest Conference Champion Linfield Wildcats. Having last won the title in 2004, Linfield will have its eyes on the prize in a wide-open field.

Senior quarterback Sam Riddle exploded for 367 yards in the season finale, making him the program’s all-time leader in total offense. He leads an offense that score 41.9 points a game. The defense has been equally impressive, allowing just 17.7 points a game. 

St. Thomas (Minnesota) (first-round opponent: Northwestern-St. Paul): You can’t have a list of contenders without last season's national runner-ups making an appearance. St. Thomas made its second trip to the Stagg Bowl last season in four years, suffering defeat for the second time in as many chances to Mount Union.

Senior quarterback Allen Fenske leads the offense with 2,289 yards passing and an outstanding 22-touchdown-to-four-interception ratio. Sophomore running back Tucker Trettel (771 yards rushing, 12 touchdowns) and freshman running back Josh Parks (673 yards rushing, nine touchdowns) have made for quite the dangerous combination out of the backfield. 

Also keep an eye on: If defense wins championships, then attention must be paid to Monmouth (Illinois). The Scots lead the nation is scoring defense, allowing a mere 8.4 points a contest, while coming in third in total defense at 199 yards allowed per game. They have done primarily behind a smothering pass defense that has allowed just 116.4 yards through the air a game. ... Stevenson will be heading to the tournament on the heels of its first-ever automatic bid into the postseason by claiming its first Middle Atlantic Conference title. The program just started six years ago. ... Rose-Hulman will be making its first trip to the NCAA postseason, locking up its first Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship behind a commanding 74-6 victory over Earlham. It will be interesting to see how two relative newcomers respond to the postseason field.