BLOOMINGTON - The long-stated goal of winning a conference championship, established in August at the start of training camp, is finally within reach for the Illinois Wesleyan football team.
Now only 10th-ranked Wheaton stands in the Titans' way entering today's 1 p.m. Senior Day showdown at Wesleyan Stadium where the winner will claim at least a share of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title.
"Emotions will be high and it's going to be an intense football game," said IWU junior wide receiver Martin Ceisel. "It's going to be a challenge, but I think we're going to be ready to meet it."
IWU (6-3 overall), Wheaton (8-1) and North Central (7-2), which plays at Carthage today, share the CCIW lead with 5-1 records. The unheralded Titans, coming off three straight 3-7 seasons and picked to finish seventh in the preseason coaches poll, are eyeing their first CCIW title since 2001.
"I don't know if they were ever a surprise," Wheaton coach Mike Swider said. "It's a school with football tradition. In my mind, surprises occur when a school that really never had a football tradition starts winning. (IWU) Coach (Norm) Eash has won his share of championships.
"They've consistently played well all year, and that tells you something."
Wheaton is bidding for its fifth league crown in six seasons despite enduring an injury-ravaged season. Starting quarterback Zach Ullrich suffered a season-ending head injury in the second game, and All-America defensive end Andy Studebaker of Eureka has been sidelined the last month with a foot injury. Swider listed Studebaker as "doubtful" for today.
"We're not a healthy football team. That's just the bottom line," Swider said. "Our kids have played hard and played well, but we've had some close games. I don't see this being any different. It's going to be a knockdown battle to the end."
Sophomore Sean Norris replaced Ullrich at quarterback and has thrown for 1,150 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Thunder. Running backs Andrew Hershey and Brett Jackson have combined for more than 1,000 yards on the ground.
Wheaton also will test IWU's league-leading pass defense behind two of the top wide receivers in the CCIW in Chris Fossum (40 catches, 682 yards) and Noah Dreyer (46-528).
"They haven't changed a whole lot," Eash said. "They're still going to be a very balanced team. They'll do a little sprint out, give you various formations and keep you off balance enough by establishing the run game and play action."
IWU sophomore quarterback Kraig Ladd has thrown for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. Ceisel, a two-time all-CCIW performer, has 56 receptions for 685 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior Marcus Dunlop, who needs 262 yards to become IWU's all-time rushing leader, is battling an ankle injury that limited him to one carry last week.
"We have to perform very well because they're a good football team," Eash said. "We're capable of doing that. Our confidence level is very high and we're looking forward to the game."
IWU vs. Wheaton
When: 1 p.m. today
Where: Wesleyan Stadium, Bloomington
Records: Wheaton 8-1, 5-1; IWU 6-3, 5-1
Wheaton vs. Illinois Wesleyan
Site: Wesleyan Stadium, Bloomington
Kickoff: 1 p.m. today
Records: Wheaton 8-1, 5-1; IWU 6-3, 5-1
Coaches: Mike Swider is 96-28 in 12 seasons at Wheaton. IWU's Norm Eash has a 21-year record of 125-73-1 at his alma mater.
Wheaton injuries: Defensive end Andy Studebaker (foot) is doubtful.
IWU injuries: Defensive back Chad Olson (knee) is out.
Wheaton leaders: Passing - Sean Norris (75 of 130, 1,150 yards, 10 TDs); Rushing - Andrew Hershey (565 yards, 5 TDs); Receiving - Chris Fossum (40 catches, 682 yards, 6 TDs)
IWU leaders: Passing - Kraig Ladd (150 of 261, 1,631 yards, 15 TDs); Rushing - Marcus Dunlop (581 yards, 1 TD); Receiving - Martin Ceisel (56 catches, 685 yards, 8 TDs)
What to watch for
- The winner of this battle of league co-leaders can clinch at least a share of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title. North Central also stands at 5-1 in the CCIW ahead of its game at Carthage.
- Both teams are coming off losses last week. IWU suffered a 23-7 setback at North Central while then No. 4-ranked Wheaton was shocked at home by Carthage, 35-27.
- IWU's 16 seniors - Joe Burgess, Wesley Butler, Brock Collins, Andrew Dulaney, Marcus Dunlop, Rob Hoyland, Jacob Jolly, Bryan Kelly, Donnie McGhee, Brett McWherter, Chad Olson, Bo Osburn, Brian Smith, Eric Van Hise, Charlie Welke and Tim Wilkins - will be honored before the game.
- "Actually, North Central probably prepared us pretty well for this game. We found out that every play counts and we didn't take care of that up at North Central. We have to do a better job all the way around." - IWU coach Norm Eash
- "When two evenly matched teams like this are playing, look at turnovers and special teams and the team that wins that will probably win the game." - Wheaton coach Mike Swider
Compiled by Douglas Hamm