Normally a rivalry game is the most highly anticipated game of any season. Any chance to beat your rival and hold bragging rights—and possibly a trophy—for a full year is an amazing opportunity. For Case Western Reserve University’s football team, tomorrow’s home matchup versus Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is for a lot more than bragging rights: it’s for conference titles and playoff berths.
The 31st Annual Academic Bowl will be held on Saturday, Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. at DiSanto Field. If the Spartans win, they claim the outright University Athletic Association (UAA) title after clinching a share earlier in the season. It’s the Spartans first UAA championship since 2011. The Tartans will share the title if they defeat CWRU.
There’s not one, but two conference titles on the line. The Spartans, who are also members of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference (PAC), can clinch a share of that title with a victory. CWRU has never won the PAC championship since the university was federated. However, Western Reserve University last won the conference in 1960. Thomas More College (10-0, 8-0 PAC) has already clinched the other share of the championship and would win the conference outright if the Spartans lose.
But there’s even more on the line when the Spartans take the field. Entering the game with a flawless 9-0 record, the team can complete their first undefeated regular season since 2009. Additionally, a win would more than likely lead to a berth in the NCAA playoffs. The Spartans would need to receive an at-large bid because Thomas More won the PAC automatic bid on a strength of schedule tiebreaker. However it would be hard for the selection committee to leave out a 10-0 team from the tournament.
Despite all the added significance of the game, Head Coach Greg Debeljak is not worried his team will fold under the pressure. “The whole year we’ve just stressed going out there and having fun,” he said. “This group is not a tight group; it’s very loose…. They like going out there and playing football and having fun playing with each other.”
In order to earn all of the accolades, the Spartans will have to defeat a tough Tartans team. CMU (6-3, 5-2 PAC) has one of the best running backs in the nation in Sam Benger. The third-year business major is third in Division III in both rushing yards (1,423) and rushing touchdowns (21). He’s just 98 yards away from breaking the school record for career rushing yards in just his second full season as the starter.
When asked how his team was going to stop Benger, Debeljak said it would have to be a team effort. “It all starts with being physical up front. We’re going to have to win the line of scrimmage; if we don’t then it’s going to be a long afternoon,” he added.
The Spartans defense can look to the Tartans’ game versus Thomas More to formulate a game plan. The Saints are the only team to hold Benger under 100 yards and prevent him from scoring this season.
Defense is just half the battle. It goes without saying that the Spartans will need to score to win, and they’ll look to their three main offensive weapons to lead the team. Third-year quarterback Rob Cuda has 29 total touchdowns and 2,927 total yards on the season. Third-year fullback Jacob Burke has 977 rushing yards and will probably become the sixth 1,000 yard rusher in program history. Fourth-year wide receiver Brendan Lynch has an outside shot at breaking the the single-season receiving yards record. He currently sits at 1,018 yards, 147 short of the record.
In the Academic Bowl series, CMU holds a 16-14 edge. Overall, the Tartans also lead the series 27-18. There is good news for CWRU fans: CMU has not defeated the Spartans in Cleveland since 2006, and the Spartans have won eight of the last nine matchups between the two schools. Last season, the Spartans lost 52-42 in the highest scoring Academic Bowl ever. The prediction machine doesn’t have the score quite that high, though it is predicting a shootout with CWRU prevailing 42-35. Go and watch the Spartans take DiSanto Field for the final time this season and possibly make history in this sure-to-be classic rivalry matchup.