BLOOMINGTON - It's been a bumpy road for Mike Stephens and the 16 other senior members of the Illinois Wesleyan football team.
They have endured the heat-related death of teammate Doug Schmied last year, three straight losing seasons and numerous heartbreaking defeats.
Their IWU playing careers will end today when the Titans (3-6 overall, 2-4 CCIW) travel to Wheaton (8-1, 5-1) to face the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin co-leaders in a 1 p.m. game at McCully Field.
Needless to say, the seniors want to exit on a high note.
"I don't care who wins the conference or who goes to the playoffs," Stephens said. "I just want to win my last game. That's all that's on my mind right now.
"A lot of guys are saying it's for the seniors, but we have to win for the whole team. It would be great momentum for next year's team and give them a lot of confidence. For the seniors it's our last hurrah and we want to go out on top."
IWU coach Norm Eash praised his seniors for their "perseverance."
"There have been a lot of times with what has happened over the last two years where they could have thrown up their hands and said we're going home," Eash said. "They haven't done that. They've always came back and lined up.
"I've stressed to the seniors when that whistle blows for the opening kickoff they need to concentrate on every play because it's probably going to be the last game they're going to play in organized football."
Wheaton, ranked No. 18 by D3footballl.com and No. 19 in the American Football Coaches Association poll, is tied with Augustana and North Central for first place in the CCIW.
North Central would win the tiebreaker and get the league's automatic NCAA Division III Tournament berth if the three teams remain deadlocked after today. Wheaton would probably secure an at-large playoff berth with a win over IWU.
Wheaton coach Mike Swider, who has guided the Thunder to the playoffs the last four seasons, is wary of the Titans. IWU stunned Wheaton 23-14 last season in Bloomington.
"They could beat you in a second - absolutely beat you a second," Swider said. "We remember (last year's game), but revenge is probably the worst motivator in the world. It does wake you up and let you know the team you're playing is extremely capable of beating you, and we are well aware of that."
The Thunder is led offensively by three-year starting senior quarterback Jeremy Chupp and senior running back Chaz Black. Chupp has thrown for 1,281 yards and 15 touchdowns. Black is averaging a league-leading 107.9 yards per game.
"They're a very confident football team," Eash said. "Offensively they're big up front. They're more of a run-first team than they have been in the past. Defensively they're very athletic and the name of their game is pressure.
"Our approach is to go up there and play a complete game, play for pride and determine who's going to win that conference. We have nothing to lose when we get off that bus."
Wheaton's defense is anchored by 6-foot-5, 249-pound junior defensive end Andy Studebaker, a Eureka High School graduate. Studebaker leads the CCIW in sacks (1.7 per game) and tackles for loss (19½).
"Andy's a great one," Swider said. "He's an impact player. He's big, he's unbelievably strong and he's fast. He's athletic and he has a motor that never shuts down."
Illinois Wesleyan vs. Wheaton
Site: McCully Field, Wheaton
Kickoff: 1 p.m.
Records: IWU 3-6 overall, 2-4 CCIW; Wheaton 8-1, 5-1
Coaches: IWU's Norm Eash has a 119-69-1 record in 20 seasons at his alma mater. Wheaton's Mike Swider is 86-26 in 11 seasons at his alma mater.
Illinois Wesleyan leaders: Rushing: Marcus Dunlop (618 yards, 2 touchdowns); Passing: Nick Panno (53-106, 748 yards, 10 touchdowns); Receiving: Martin Ceisel (47 catches, 733 yards, 9 touchdowns); Scoring: Martin Ceisel (9 touchdowns, 54 points); Tackles: Bo Osburn (73)
Wheaton leaders: Rushing: Chaz Black (687 yards, 6 touchdowns); Passing: Jeremy Chupp (89-159, 1,281 yards, 15 touchdowns); Receiving: Chris Fossum (32 catches, 597 yards, 6 touchdowns); Scoring: Tim Ellingsen (4 FGs, 34 PATs, 46 points); Tackles: Steve Pagh (53)
Illinois Wesleyan injuries: None
Wheaton injuries: None
What to watch for
- Wheaton, ranked No. 18 by D3footballl.com and No. 19 in the American Football Coaches Association poll, is locked in a three-way tie with Augustana and North Central for first place in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin.
- IWU's quarterbacks threw three interceptions and were sacked six times in last week's 47-21 home loss to North Central.
- Since suffering a 17-14 loss at Augustana on Oct. 14, Wheaton has rolled to victories over North Park (73-26), Elmhurst (34-0) and Carthage (52-3).
- Wheaton leads the CCIW in scoring offense (37.3 ppg), total offense (424.1 ypg) and scoring defense (11.9 ppg).
Points of interest
- Wheaton leads IWU 26-23-2 in a series that dates to 1922 but the Titans snapped a three-game losing streak last season with a 23-14 win at Bloomington.
- The Titans need a victory to avoid their third straight 3-7 campaign.
- If Wheaton, North Central and Augustana finish is a three-way tie, North Central will earn the CCIW's automatic NCAA Tournament bid based on a points differential tiebreaker among the three teams.
- Junior defensive end Andy Studebaker, a Eureka High School graduate, averages a CCIW-leading 1.7 sacks per game for the Thunder. Studebaker's older brother, Dan, is a backup defensive tackle for the Thunder.
- "I know we can play with Wheaton and beat Wheaton, but we have to do the things necessary to do that and that's been our problem all year. As a coach you're hoping we can put everything together. If we do that we'll be in the ballgame and have a chance to win it." - IWU coach Norm Eash
- There's a lot riding on it for us. There's a conference championship riding on it and a potential postseason trip riding on it." - Wheaton coach Mike Swider