BLOOMINGTON — Having a bye in the second-to-last week of the regular season isn't usually preferred by football players or coaches.

This year, Illinois Wesleyan couldn't have asked for better bye timing.

The No. 11-ranked Titans enjoyed two weeks to prepare for Millikin ahead of Saturday's 1 p.m. Senior Day game in the regular-season finale at Tucci Stadium.

IWU comes in 8-1 overall and 6-1 in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, tied for first place with North Central. The Titans have not won the CCIW since 2009.

"We had a lot of fun during bye week. Everyone was kind of excited," said IWU linebacker Brinton Wilkey Jr., who will be one of 21 seniors honored in a pregame ceremony. "Everyone is focused and locked in (this week) and also bringing a lot of energy to practice."

If IWU and North Central, which plays at Elmhurst on Saturday, tie for the CCIW title, the Cardinals would get the league's automatic qualifying spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs based on their 26-13 victory over the Titans on Sept. 16. 

An IWU victory over Millikin almost surely would mean an at-large playoff spot when the 32-team bracket is revealed Sunday afternoon. The Titans haven't been to the playoffs in four years.

"This game will define our season," said Norm Eash, searching for his 200th career victory as IWU coach. "We've had some great moments this year beating (Wisconsin-)Whitewater when they were ranked and beating Wheaton at Wheaton. But this game will define our season."

Millikin (7-2, 5-2), enjoying its best season since 2003, comes in with a high-powered offense led by Nicco Stepina. The junior quarterback, who is a leading contender for CCIW Offensive Player of the Year, is the league's top-ranked passer by completing 175 of 311 attempts for school records of 2,488 yards and 28 touchdowns.

"He does a lot of great things. He's a thrower and can hurt you running the football. You have to contain him a little bit," said Eash. "They're a big-play type of team."

Stepina's favorite target is 6-foot-4 sophomore Jordan Smith, the CCIW's leading receiver with 40 receptions for 751 yards and 13 TDs. Millikin's leading rusher is freshman Jazontae Howard, who has gained 530 yards on 81 carries.

IWU leads the CCIW in scoring defense, allowing 11.3 points per game, while ranking fifth nationally in rushing defense at 54.7 yards per game.

"Containing some of their wide receivers and keeping the quarterback in the pocket are probably the keys to the game this week," said Wilkey. 

The extra time to get ready for Millikin was a bonus, according to Eash, especially with the stakes raised. The Titans have won the last seven games against the Big Blue, who have only two senior starters.

"It's been the best bye week I've ever been around," said Eash. "Our kids are pretty focused. There's a lot to play for. I thought we had great practices last week, and our practices this week have been very good. You can just tell our players are focused and there's an edge to our players right now."

IWU junior tailback Morgan Alexander needs 110 yards rushing to become the fifth player in school history — and third in the last five years — to top the 1,000-yard mark for a season.

Follow Jim Benson on Twitter: @Pg_Benson

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Sports Writer

Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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