BLOOMINGTON — No one on Illinois Wesleyan's football team has competed in an NCAA Division III playoff game. Senior linebacker Josh Akin and his teammates have been told to expect one thing about the postseason.
"We've proven a lot, but as coach (Norm) Eash said we'll really be judged by that first playoff game," said Akin. "Now it's just beginning. We have a lot left to prove."
After sharing the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title, the No. 11-ranked Titans (9-1) were selected as an at-large team to the Division III playoffs.
IWU is seeded fourth in its eight-team bracket and meets No. 5 Case Western Reserve (10-0) in a first-round game at noon Saturday at Tucci Stadium.
This is the Titans' sixth appearance in the Division III playoffs and first in four years. IWU hasn't won a playoff game since 2009, losing in the first round in 2011 and 2013.
"A lot of people judge you on your first-round game," said Eash. "If you lose they say you shouldn't have been there. If you win, they give you credit."
Monmouth beat IWU, 33-27, in triple overtime in 2011. Eash points out Monmouth's quarterback, Alex Tanney of Lexington, is still with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
Four years ago, Wartburg (Iowa) came into Tucci Stadium and routed IWU, 41-7.
"They kicked us pretty good. That's not a good feeling," said Eash. "(What) we have to continue to do is have a sense of urgency to get their attention and let them know who they're playing and be really excited about this first playoff game."
Eash also has challenged his team that it needs four victories to get to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl and play for the national championship on Dec. 15 in Salem, Va.
For a program that has won only three playoff games in its history — and never got past the second round — that might seem to be a reach.
"We came up with saying 'Anything is Possible.' Our whole season has been based on that," said Eash. "So why not carry that into the playoffs and talk about winning a national championship?"
When IWU lost to North Central in the CCIW opener on Sept. 16, the Titans' record fell to 2-1. The only way to get to the playoffs was to finish off the regular season with seven straight wins.
Mission accomplished, along with sharing the league crown with North Central.
"Every game we've had so far has been a playoff game," said IWU sophomore wide receiver Jack Healy. "We were playing for conference and a playoff berth. It's been must win. I feel that definitely will help because the mentality will be the exact same on Saturday."
Apel out for season: IWU senior tight end Andrew Apel reinjured his knee during last Saturday's 31-6 victory over Millikin and won't play the rest of the season.
Apel suffered an ACL tear on Sept. 30. He got a brace and returned to practice last week before being hurt again.
"Andrew will be back to just being a captain for us," said Eash. "It was great to see him out there, and I'm so happy he was able to play on Senior Day and the last home game of the regular season."
Apel is the Titans' fifth-leading receiver with 15 catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns. He caught one pass against Millikin.
Reserve wide receivers Mitch Pfeiffer (foot) and Matt Curley (shoulder) also have been ruled out Saturday. Pfeiffer has returned 13 punts for a 7.2-yard average.
Long trip for visitors: Case Western coach Greg Debeljak isn't concerned about a seven-hour bus trip for his team, whose campus is located in Cleveland.
The Spartans will leave Friday morning. Debeljak said they plan to stop somewhere in Indiana and practice before heading to Bloomington.
"You do what you have to do. It's a departure from our usual trip," said Debeljak, who has compiled a 101-42 record in 14 seasons as the Spartans' coach. "We made a 6½-hour trip to Chicago earlier this year. These guys been through a lot and adapted. They'll be fine."
The NCAA pays for charter flights on trips longer than 500 miles. Cleveland to Bloomington is about 450 miles.