The 2007 NCAA playoffs don't begin until November 17, but the Case Western Reserve University football team has treated every Saturday this fall like the postseason because it will likely take the Spartans a perfect 10-0 record to make their first trip.
"That's true," head coach Greg Debeljak said. "If you are unproven and do not have that reputation of being [in the playoffs], I think it does take a breakthrough year. [The Division III Championship selection committee] are not going to take a 7-3 or 8-2 team; you have to take all the guess work out of it and win every game and then they have to put you in."
Case Field will evoke a playoff atmosphere Saturday, November 3, when the home team puts its undefeated season (8-0, 2-0 UAA) and a first outright (1996 co-champions) University Athletic Association Championship on the line when Washington University (6-2, 1-1 UAA) visits for a noon kickoff.
The university has declared Friday, November 2 as Blue and White Spirit Day in support of its gridiron team, encouraging the campus community to wear blue and white to work and root the Spartans to victory on Saturday during the regular season's penultimate game.
"Our football team is in the midst of a special season. I encourage our entire campus community to be a part of the excitement and energy that is building around its success," said President Barbara R. Snyder.
Case Western Reserve received its first boost of the week, as the team broke into the American Football Coaches Association's (AFCA) Top 25 for the first time in more than 20 years. The Spartans, who are currently ranked 21st, also are ranked fourth in the region and received votes in the latest D3Football.com Top 25 poll.
"It's certainly nice to get recognition from your peers because that's who votes on the AFCA Top 25. It's all coaches," Debeljak said. "But those polls don't mean anything until after week 10. It's a statement that people are recognizing our program as getting better. We will be much happier if we are in there after week 10."
To reach both goals, Case Western Reserve will have to get by a Bears team that has topped them in 15 straight games dating back to 1991 and has won eight; three were co-champion UAA titles. The Spartans will counter Washington with the 17th-ranked scoring offense (38.8 avg.) and ninth-ranked scoring defense (12.1 avg.) in the nation (NCAA Div. III).
"Wash U. has done things that we are aspiring to do, not just one year, to be there every year," Debeljak said. "Through the last decade they have been the team to beat in our league. I have a lot of respect for their program. We have put a lot of those types of streaks to an end this year."
Case Western Reserve posted a 7-3 record both in 1991 and 1988 and ended 7-1-1 in 1986. That's the best they have been since the 1984 team finished a perfect 9-0. The Spartans have come a long way, considering they have had only one winning record during the last 15 years.
"I am very proud of how our guys have just concentrated on winning ball games week by week," said Debeljak. "They believe they can win every game. Our goal to start the season was to win the UAA and we do have a partial share in that. But I don't think our guys are very interested in sharing anything."
Sophomores Dan Whalen and Tim Cowdrick have been unstoppable on the offensive side of the ball so far this season. Whalen leads the UAA in passing (127-of-207, 1,576 yards, 16 touchdowns) and total offense (237.9 ypg.), while Cowdrick leads the conference in receiving (55 catches, 831 yards, 4 touchdowns).
Defensively, senior All-American linebacker Tom Brew, junior defensive back Luiz Goncalves and junior defensive end Brian Calderone have stopped all opponents. Brew leads the team in tackles (66), Goncalves in interceptions (4), and Calderone in tackles for a loss (10.5-50 yards).
"Dan is playing great, but he is not going to be ranked nationally," said Debeljak. "Brew, as usual, is playing unbelievably, but his tackling stats aren't as high as last year. I think you can contribute both of those situations to the fact our 'team' is just better, we don't need one guy to make all the plays."
After the conference finale this week, Case Western Reserve will finish its regular season at home against Ohio Wesleyan University. The game will begin at 1 p.m. on November 10.
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