|There could be plenty of fireworks when two teams that average more than 40 points per game meet at noon Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs at Monmouth's April Zorn Memorial Stadium.
Monmouth College has the nation's second-best scoring offense, averaging nearly 48 points per outing. The University of St. Thomas isn't lagging far behind, ranked ninth while scoring just under 41 points per game. The way they score is the difference.
The Fighting Scots high-octane offense is fueled by record-setting junior quarterback Alex Tanney and a stable of talented receivers, complemented by a couple of explosive running backs. The Scots average 354 of their 541 yards of total offense through the air.
The Tommies like to keep both feet planted firmly on the ground, but have quick-score potential. Their 425 offensive yards per game includes 247 via the run, led by 6-foot-2, 205-pound running back Ben Wartman. St. Thomas' top back has gained more than 1,300 yards with "patient" running, waiting for a seam and exploding through the hole. The ground game is complemented by diminutive wide receiver Fritz Waldvogel. Don't let the 5-foot-9 sophomore's size fool you, Waldvogel is a playmaker and the Tommies' offensive scheme can get him deep.
"He is a fabulous player," said Monmouth coach Steve Bell of Waldvogel. "He creates explosive opportunities for them at wide receiver. He's also a terrific return man. He's just flat out good."
Waldvogel's 62 receptions and 793 yards makes him by far the team's reception leader, as no other receiver has more than 17 catches. As dangerous as the sophomore is lining up from scrimmage, the Scots special teams' coverage units had better keep an eye open. Waldvogel handles most of the kickoff and punt return chores, returning three punts and three kickoffs for TDs. He's the Division III leader in kickoff returns, averaging more than 36 yards per return and is in the top 10 in both punt return yardage and all-purpose yards.
Starting the Tommie offense has fallen on the shoulders of two quarterbacks. The pair of sophomores - 5-foot-10 Dakota Tracy and 6-foot-5 Greg Morse - split time under center and have thrown for eight and nine touchdowns, respectively. Tracy has passed for more than 1,000 yards, completing 56 percent of his passes, and Morse has hooked up for 615 yards on 59 percent accuracy.
Opening holes and providing pass protection for the Tommies is an offensive line that checks in at nearly 1,500 pounds, or about half the weight of a Volkswagen Beetle. The line averages nearly 300 pounds per man. Only right guard Jon Curtis checks in under 300 pounds.
"They're probably closest to St. Norbert," reported Bell of St. Thomas's offensive style and big linemen. "They'll run multiple formations, do some misdirection, play action, roll out and throw. They can go deep."
It's nothing new for Monmouth's defense, which has been solid against the run and the pass. Led by linebacker Adam Hoste, the Scots have eight players with 40 or more tackles and have held opponents to just 94 rushing yards and 9.4 points per game. Monmouth has picked off 18 passes and preseason all-American Anthony Goranson leads Monmouth's sack attack, recording 7.5 sacks to close within 1.5 sacks of the school's all-time record. The Scots' other defensive end, Nick Leffler, has terrorized quarterbacks with four sacks.
Of course, when it comes to quarterbacks, the Scots have a pretty fair one in Tanney. His 166.79 pass efficiency rating ranks eighth in DIII and he's just 203 yards from the 10,000 yard mark in his career. Four receivers have 40 or more catches, and Matt Shepherd and Mike Blodgett are each on the verge of becoming the Scots' first receivers with 1,000 yards in a season. Add in the running back tandem of senior Clay Bricker (756 yards) and sophomore Caleb Pratt (845 yards) and the Scots possess a potent attack.
The Tommies defense hasn't allowed many yards on the ground or through the air. Cyrus Allen - a 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive lineman - has crashed the passing party with a team-high 4.5 sacks. A pair of defensive backs and a linebacker have the top tackle totals on the swarming defense.
"Some of that is schematics," explained Bell of the secondary's high tackle numbers. "They put those guys in position to make the tackle."
Being in position has given St. Thomas their second trip to the NCAA playoffs. Their first came 19 years ago.
Making their third trip to the postseason, the Scots first qualified for the elite field in 2005. Monmouth has plenty of playoff experience with back-to-back appearances, and the Scots are hosting their third straight playoff game.
One more win would also make Bell the Scots' all-time winningest coach. That could set off some fireworks, but then again, so could the Scots' and Tommies' offenses.
(Monmouth College Athletics)