Through pelting rain, heavy snow and rushing winds, the Spartans prevailed for their second-ever victory in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
In the cold and wet afternoon game, Case Western Reserve University defeated host Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU) 28-0 in the first round of the playoffs. The Spartans will take on the second-ranked University of Mount Union in the second round.
The slippery and windy conditions throughout the game prevented both teams from accurately passing the ball. Instead, CWRU relied on fourth-year veteran running back Aaron Aguilar to carry the load. The back ran for a career high 136 yards and three touchdowns.
“He was the best guy to be out there because he plays so low to the ground, and his footing seemed to be a little better than everybody else,” said Head Coach Greg Debeljak.
For most of the first two quarters, both defenses—and the weather—prevailed. On back-to-back drives, the teams traded fumbles. Three times, teams attempted fourth down conversions instead of punting because of the high winds and slick balls.
CWRU finally broke through late in the second quarter, helped by some lucky breaks. On a third down conversion, fourth-year career quarterback Rob Cuda found third-year veteran wide receiver Joey Spitalli, but only after the ball was tipped up in the air. Four plays later, Cuda fumbled the ball, but Aguilar was there to pick it up and run it in for the score. At the half, the Spartans led 7-0, and it seemed like that’s all they would need to win.
“Scoring first, I think, was critical because then we could play [conservatively],” said Debeljak.
During the second quarter, the rain turned to snow. When the teams returned from their locker rooms for the second half, a light layer of snow blanketed the field. Volunteers shoveled snow away from the sideline, and in between plays during the third quarter, they cleared snow away from the yard lines.
“It was a mix between miserable and a lot of fun,” said fourth-year veteran linebacker Justin McMahon. “….it just felt like playing backyard football in the snow with my buddies.”
With the snow falling, the Spartan offense found its footing, while the defense continued to stifle the Titans. Four plays after third-year veteran wide receiver Justin Phan returned a punt 33 yards, Aguilar ran for a 33 yard touchdown that put the Spartans up 14-0. The IWU defense had given up just one rushing touchdown all year, and Aguilar had two on his own.
But CWRU wasn’t done just yet.
Early in the fourth quarter, IWU’s punter could not handle a snap for the second time in the game and the Spartans took over at the five yard line. The very next play, Aguilar ran it in for the score. Fourth-year veteran running back Myles Anthony added a rushing touchdown of his own later in the quarter, but by that point, the game was basically over.
With the victory, the Spartans earned a trip to Alliance, Ohio to face No. 2 Mount Union at noon on Nov. 25. The Purple Raiders defeated Washington and Lee University 21-0 in their first round matchup. The winner of the game will advance to the quarterfinals and face the winner of the game between Frostburg State University and Washington & Jefferson College.
Mount Union is the most well-known team in Division III because of their recent success. The team has made the national semifinals every year since 1994 and won 12 national championships. Overall, the Purple Raiders have 95 all-time wins in the NCAA playoffs; CWRU just got their second.
“What they’ve accomplished is remarkable,” said Debeljak about Mount Union in a postgame press conference.
Despite the closeness of the universities, the two teams have not faced each other since the merger of Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University (WRU). However, before the merger, Case Tech and Mount Union split 24 meetings and WRU had a 12-7-1 record against the Purple Raiders.
Second-year returning quarterback D’Angelo Fulford leads the nation’s highest scoring offense (53.5 points per game). He has 44 passing touchdowns and completed 70.7 percent of his passes. The Purple Raiders primary runner is third-year veteran running back Jawanza Evans-Morris with 852 yards. First-year running back Josh Petrucelli has added 768 yards on the ground.
Defensively, the Purple Raiders are dominant, allowing just 9.1 points and 216.1 yards per game. Both are third fewest in the country. Though the team has pitched just one shutout, they allowed more than 14 points just once all season.
McMahon said he is excited to face the best team in the country, but the team is not changing its preparation or strategy.
He said, “If we play well, and execute and play fast and physical, we’ll be fine.”