|One team will be knocked from their perch as a conference unbeaten when Monmouth hosts St. Norbert Saturday at 1 p.m. at April Zorn Memorial Stadium.
Monmouth - ranked 12th by D3football.com and the American Football Coaches Association - and St. Norbert were picked 1-2 in the Midwest Conference coaches' poll and are tied with Ripon atop the Midwest Conference at 4-0. All that will change this weekend when the only two teams to win the league title outright in the last six years meet in Monmouth's Homecoming game. Other than the Fighting Scots title years of 2005 and 2008, the Green Knights have won the title every year since 1999, sharing the crown with Lake Forest in 2002.
The game features two of the league's premier coaches - Jim Purtill (96-16 at St. Norbert) and Monmouth's Steve Bell (73-25), who just moved past Kelly Kane as the second winningest coach in Fighting Scots' history. The tandem has a remarkable conference record - Purtill is 88-5 and Bell is 70-18 in the MWC.
While the Scots are the defending champions and defeated the Green Knights at St. Norbert last season, Bell isn't taking anything for granted.
"They're an extremely good team," said Bell of the Green Knights. "We don't try to hide it from our kids. This game will have some type of ramification for the conference championship. It won't decide it, but it will have an impact on who's in position to win it at the end of the year."
The Scots enter the game ranked second in Division III in both scoring offense (50.60) and total offense (512.60). But it has been the defense that has surprised most onlookers. Monmouth's defensive unit ranks as DIII's best in turnover margin (3.40) and pass efficiency defense (72.10), and they're eighth in rushing defense (51.20). Consider that the Scots have recovered 11 of 12 opponent fumbles and picked off 13 passes and St. Norbert's prime directive may be to take care of the ball.
The Green Knights have certainly done that. St. Norbert quarterbacks have only been picked off three times. They haven't fumbled much, but their success rate hasn't been good when they do, losing five of their six drops. That could create a feeding frenzy for Monmouth's defense.
"We work on takeaways every week," said Bell. "We stress to be ahead in the turnover category."
The Green Knights like to run, but do sport a balanced attack (161.4 rushing per game, 236.8 passing per game), led by junior quarterback Rob Berger. He's thrown for 11 TDs and nearly 1,000 yards. His favorite target has been 6-foot-3 wide receiver Jeremy Gezella, who has a team-leading six touchdowns and averages more than 100 yards per game. Running back John Weninger gets the bulk of the carries and has five rushing touchdowns, but Berger is apt to run as well with four TDs.
"They've got a talented quarterback," said Bell. "He's a very good athlete, very versatile and Gezella is a talented receiver. We'll have to get a pass rush without running a lot of extra defenders, but their offensive line is huge."
The Scots' defensive line and their 14 sacks will be tested. St. Norbert's offensive line averages more than 290 pounds vs. Monmouth's defensive line average of 250. The Knights have protected their quarterback, allowing just eight sacks this season.
Defensively for St. Norbert, they've gotten a good rush, too, recording 34 tackles for losses and nine sacks while holding opponents to 133 yards rushing and 161 yards passing per game. Sophomore linebacker Justin Baker has been the main hit man for the Knights. His 36 tackles lead the defense and 265-pound defensive tackle John Troyer has a team-high four sacks.
"They have a new defensive coordinator," reported Bell. "They'll be a little bit different schematically than they have been because of that. I expect some wrinkles that we haven't seen yet. One thing that hasn't changed is that they have big, strong linemen."
Bell isn't looking at the numbers as he prepares his Scots for their biggest challenge of the season. The way he figures it, the game is anyone's for the taking.
"There is no underdog in this game," claimed Bell. "It will be a matchup of two extremely good football teams. It's a 50-50 game. Whoever's willing to make the plays and performs the best on Saturday will win."
Game Coverage: Fans may log on to www.midwestconference.tv to access live streaming audio and video coverage of Saturday's contest.
(Monmouth College Athletics)