by Randy Gore
When it comes to winning football programs at the Division III level, two of the most successful are Washington & Jefferson College (9-1) and Wittenburg University (9-1). In the opening round of the NCAA playoffs, the Presidents and Tigers will go head to head on Saturday at noon from Edwards-Maurer Field in Springfield, Ohio. While these teams have been regulars in the NCAA D-III playoffs, 41 appearances combined, this is only the third meeting all time between the two schools with the last coming back in 1930.
An overtime loss to Waynesburg University in the regular season finale prevented the Presidents from hosting a playoff game and instead has W&J traveling three hours west to face Wittenburg. However, W&J still enters the postseason as champions of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference for the third consecutive season. The Presidents are looking for their first NCAA playoff win since 2008 when they reached the quarterfinals with victories over Christopher Newport, 35-29, and Millsaps College, 35-20, before bowing out to Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Wittenberg completed an undefeated run through conference play with a 52-21 win over Allegheny on Saturday, capturing its fifth North Coast Athletic Conference crown in the last six seasons. Like W&J, this is the third consecutive trip to the NCAA playoffs for the Tigers. In the past two playoff appearances, the Tigers earned first round victories before being upended in the second round. Last season Wittenberg posted a 59-17 opening round win and then fell to the eventual national runner-up Mount Union, 56-21, in the second round. The Purple Raiders also cut short the President’s 2013 campaign with a 34-20 win in the NCAA first round.
A quick glance at Saturday’s meeting reveals an intriguing matchup between one of the best offenses in the nation against one of the most opportunistic defenses in the country. W&J has imposed its will on opponents this season with the third best offense in D-III, racking up 548 yards per game. A well-balanced offense, head coach Mike Sirianni compliments the passing of sophomore quarterback Pete Coughlin with the legs of running back Ryan Ruffing. The junior from Thomas Jefferson high school has toted the football for 1,565 yards and has scored 24 touchdowns, ranking him second in the nation. Thomas More’s Dominique Hayden leads D-III with 25 rushing scores. Ruffing ranks No. 1 in scoring with an average of 16.8 points per game.
The Presidents will face a ball-hawking Wittenberg team that ranks sixth in the nation in turnover margin with a plus 17. The Tigers defense has recovered 16 fumbles and has 14 interceptions this season. Of the thieves in the secondary, junior Winston Thomas has pirated four enemy passes and senior Victor Banjo has three picks.
Some notables on the Wittenberg offense: junior receiver Zach Culvahouse has 1,010 yards and a school single-season record 71 receptions this season. Culvahouse started the year in a big way, reeling in a school single-game record 14 passes in the season opener against Butler on September 6. The passing game is certainly a strength for this Tigers team and quarterback Zack Jenkins has thrown for 2,499 yards and 23 touchdowns with only four interceptions. Junior running back Sean Gary is the team’s leading rusher with 549 yards and five scores. Gary averages only 3.3 yards per carry and 54.9 yards per game.
Kickoff for Saturday’s NCAA first round game between W&J and Wittenberg is set for noon. The winner will face the winner between Mount Union (10-0) and Adrian (8-2) in the NCAA second round. For a look at the entire NCAA playoff bracket, click here.