Two years ago, a Wittenberg football team that just had just completed its second straight 10-0 season went on the road in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs and got trounced by the second-place team from the Ohio Athletic Conference.
The Tigers lost 37-14 at Ohio Northern in 2010 — a shocking result because they had played so well in the 2009 playoffs, even holding their own at Wisconsin-Whitewater in the national quarterfinals.
There’s no doubt the Tigers haven’t forgotten that result. Twelve current Tigers played in that game, though only defensive lineman Justin Bartlett and cornerback Jamaal Everett started.
It’s relevant today because at noon the No. 13 Tigers (9-1) return to the playoffs for the first time since that day, visiting No. 11 Heidelberg University (9-1) in Tiffin.
“I think it’s absolutely on your mind,” said defensive lineman and co-captain Jonathan Daniels. “It’s the second-place team from the OAC. You’re going to their place. They’ve got a good running back. I think the running back from Ohio Northern was an All-American that year. They also have a passing game that can throw the ball deep. It’s a very similar situation, and it’s been weighing on guys’ minds.”
The season is already a success in one way. The Tigers won the North Coast Athletic Conference championship, though they had to share it with Ohio Wesleyan.
The 2009 team set itself apart by winning two playoff games. That team won two games at Edwards-Maurer Field, of course, and this team will likely stay on the road in the second round — against Hobart or Washington & Lee — if it wins today.
“To get back to the postseason, to get the conference title is always the goal,” Daniels said, “and you see how far you can ride the train out. That’s where we’re all kind of heading now.”
Today’s game will be played at Frost-Kalnow Stadium at Tiffin-Columbian High School in Tiffin because of a lack of seating at Heidelberg’s home stadium.
Heidelberg’s offense is almost perfectly balanced between the run and pass. It has gained 2,376 yards on the ground and 2,369 yards in the air.
Sophomore quarterback Michael Mees completes 56 percent of his passes and has thrown for 2,140 yards with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His top target is senior C.J. Powell, who has 49 catches for 763 yards with 6 touchdowns.
Sophomore Cartel Brooks leads the ground game with 1,299 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“They’re ridiculously balanced,” Fincham said. “It makes it an absolute nightmare. It’s so much easier to defend somebody when they’re more one dimensional.”
The Tigers can run and throw, too. They have 2,505 yards in the air and 1,962 on the ground.
“We fight like the dickens to stay balanced,” Fincham said.
Heidelberg doesn’t have the history that serves Wittenberg so well. This is its first postseason experience since 1972, and that remains the last time it won an OAC championship. Since 1995, Mount Union is the only team to win the OAC championship.
Mike Hallett is the only Heidelberg coach in the last 50 years with a winning record. He’s 34-26 in six seasons.
Prior to 2010, when Heidelberg was 5-5, it had not won more than four games in a season in the previous 10, and from 2000-06, it won a total of four games with three 0-10 seasons.
Of course, those days are long past. This is a strong Heidelberg team that beat three winning teams in the regular season: Otterbein (8-2), Baldwin-Wallace (7-3) and John Carroll (6-4).
Wittenberg played only two teams that finished with winning records, beating 6-4 Case Western (14-10) and losing to 8-2 Wabash (27-24).
The Tigers and Princes have one common opponent: Capital. Wittenberg beat Capital 44-17, and Heidelberg beat Capital 45-10. Both games were over by halftime.
Watching the Princes on film, Fincham was impressed by hard they play on defense.
“I don’t know how they match up with other teams in the OAC, but they’re very physical on defense,” he said. “They’re offensive line is tremendously physical, too.”