Illinois Wesleyan linebacker Josh Akin (8) pressures Nebraska Wesleyan quarterback Jonathan Curti during their game earlier this season at Tucci Stadium. Akin and the Titans entertain Case Western Reserve at noon Saturday in an NCAA Division III first-round playoff game.

BLOOMINGTON — Any fears about Illinois Wesleyan's football team having a letdown in the second half of the season might be unwarranted.

The Titans still don't think they're getting the proper respect.

IWU (4-1) survived a grueling first half of the schedule which featured three opponents ranked in the top seven of the preseason Division III polls. The Titans knocked off Wisconsin-Whitewater in the opener, lost to North Central after being tied at halftime and scored in the waning seconds to upset Wheaton last Saturday.

Starting with Saturday's 1 p.m. game against Augustana (1-4) in Rock Island, IWU coach Norm Eash is telling his team they will be favored in the remaining five College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin games.

In other words, teams will be gunning to upset the Titans (2-1 CCIW).

Yet IWU senior linebacker Josh Akin and his teammates have been reading social media sites this week saying the Titans were lucky to beat Whitewater and Wheaton. Some are disputing Zach Walsh's one-handed 12-yard touchdown grab last Saturday which gave IWU a 14-10 victory.

"We're hearing the chirping and chirping," said Akin. "We're ticked off and hungry. Practice (Tuesday) was very intense, especially Green against Green (the No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense). There's no complacency at all. We still have a lot to prove."

Eash liked hearing that. He wants the Titans to play with the same kind of urgency and attitude they have exhibited thus far, lifting them to No. 12 in the latest D3football.com poll.

"We have the opportunity to have a special season, but it's going to take a great effort from everyone in our program," said Eash. "Everyone has to be on the same page and know what we have to do each week."

Akin doesn't want to lose the chance to end his career on a high note.

The 6-foot, 230-pound senior linebacker battled through various injuries his first three seasons. He played rush end last season and was named CCIW Defensive Player of the Week against Carroll before his year ended the following game because of a concussion.

Returning to linebacker this season, Akin is part of a stellar defensive unit that is allowing 54.4 yards rushing (11th in the country) and 13.4 points (24th nationally) per game.

"No one knew who we were," said Akin, who is second on the team with 31 tackles, including 12 for lost yardage. "We wanted to make a name for ourselves. I watched everyone work for it and that's what I expected, personally."

Akin thanks Eash with not letting him give up on football despite all the injuries. Also deserving credit, said Akin, is IWU first-year defensive coordinator Jeff McDonald, for instilling an aggressive but disciplined approach.

"He came here (in the spring) and asked, ‘What are you guys good at? We'll run whatever you guys are good at. I'm not going to come and put a scheme in place and make you guys fit with that,’" said Akin. "We're playing to our strengths and it's showing."

Apel, Walters out: The game against Wheaton might have been IWU's most physical of the season. It cost the Titans two starters against Augustana — and maybe beyond.

Tight end Andrew Apel and cornerback Quintin Walters both suffered knee injuries. Eash said the severity of both isn't known yet and it might be four weeks before knowing if Apel can return.

Junior Anthony Ryan and sophomore Ethan Emerson replaced Apel at Wheaton. Eash said sophomore Chrystain Maciorowski, a converted wide receiver, also will be worked in at tight end.

Walters, a transfer from Iowa Wesleyan, was hurt on the second-half kickoff. Senior Erich Lieser, who was a starter last season, took over for Walters.

The Titans also will be without punt returner Mitch Pfeiffer, who suffered a concussion. Sophomore wide receiver Liam Keffer will handle those duties.

Follow Jim Benson on Twitter: @Pg_Benson


Sports Writer

Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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