BLOOMINGTON — Case Western Reserve coach Greg Debeljak is not expecting a warm welcome from Illinois Wesleyan for his program's first NCAA Division III playoff football game in eight years.
“They have one of the top defenses in the country. They are physical and stop the run,” said Debeljak after watching video of the Titans' last three games. “The physicality really jumps off the screen … nothing is going to be easy. They really bring it.”
The No. 11-ranked Titans (9-1) will try to make things extremely difficult for No. 16 Case Western (10-0) — and especially senior quarterback Rob Cuda — during Saturday's noon first-round playoff game at Tucci Stadium.
Cuda was the Presidents' Athletic Conference Most Valuable Player while completing 159 of 267 attempts for 2,510 yards and 28 touchdowns. The South Elgin High School graduate also rushed for 392 yards and six TDs.
IWU coach Norm Eash said Cuda, a three-year starter, reminds him of a cross between two College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin quarterbacks.
“He kind of throws like (North Central's Broc) Rutter and is a playmaker like (Millikin's Nicco) Stepina," said Eash. "He's the real deal. We have to stop him. He's a veteran. I've had other coaches compare him to Brett Favre of Green Bay. He's that type of quarterback.”
Defense helped carry the Titans to a share of their first CCIW title since 2009 and first playoff appearance in four years.
IWU ranks No. 4 nationally by allowing 49.9 rushing yards per game and No. 11 in scoring defense (10.8 points per game). The Spartans are averaging 43.5 points and have topped 40 in their last five games, including last week's 41-34 overtime victory over Carnegie Mellon.
“Our defensive mentality is the same from week to week, even with teams we've known. It's physicality,” said IWU senior linebacker Josh Akin. “It's not a secret.”
Case Western halfback Jacob Burke has gained 1,072 yards rushing with 17 TDs, while wide receiver Justin Phan has 48 catches for 591 yards and seven TDs. But the Titans realize everything starts with Cuda.
“When we get our hands on him we have to get him on the ground,” said Akin. “He has some playmakers. It will be a challenge, but it's nothing we haven't seen.”
Debeljak hopes his senior-laden team can play relaxed, something he thought didn't happen last week with the pressure of win-or-the-season-is-over mentality.
The Spartans had to block a punt late to go ahead of Carneige Mellon. After allowing a field goal to tie the game with one second left, Case Western prevailed in overtime.
“We were in the situation we were 9-0 last year and did not get it done. Guys played tight (last week) because of that. That's not us,” said Debeljak. “We're a really loose bunch. They're different, no doubt about it. When we've gotten on them about taking things more serious and not joking around, they don't play as well.
“They like to have fun. We sensed tension there last week and from that tension a lot of mistakes were made.”
Case Western's defense allows 16.9 points per game and is led by junior end Cameron Brown, who has 4½ sacks, and senior linebacker Justin McMahon, the leading tackler with 72.
The Titans' offense has come alive in the last two games in victories over Elmhurst (47-15) and Millikin (31-6).
Brandon Bauer has thrown for seven of his 22 TD passes in those games. Tailback Morgan Alexander is 36 yards shy of cracking the 1,000-yard barrier.
"I would say we've cut down mistakes and are getting more comfortable, the chemistry in the pass game," said sophomore Jack Healy, who leads IWU with 40 receptions for 524 yards and eight TDs. "It takes time to build that. I feel over the season it's definitely improved a lot with Brandon and all the receivers."
This is the first-ever meeting between IWU and Case Western, which is located in Cleveland. The winner advances to the second round next Saturday against No. 2-ranked Mount Union (10-0) or Washington & Lee (8-2).