#5 seed Hillsdale (9-2) at #4 seed St. Cloud State (9-2)
For the second straight season, Hillsdale will hit the road bound for Minnesota and a first-round playoff tilt. And for the second straight year, they'll face an NCC club coming off a second-place finish in the NSIC. The Chargers will head to the shores of the Mighty Mississippi in St. Cloud to tangle with Coach Scott Underwood's Huskies, who are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Coach Keith Otterbein's group proved worthy of last year's trip, snaring an overtime victory at Mankato in a physical grudge match. Are they up to the task once again?
If they are, they'll have to find a way to contain SCSU quarterback Phillip Klaphake (pronounced KLAP-hockey). The red-shirt freshman took like a fish to water in his first season running the Husky offense, leading the NSIC in total offense and setting a school record in the same category in the process. The nation's fifth most efficient passer, Klaphake led the Northern Sun in total passing yardage (2,490), touchdowns (23), and completion percentage (65.7%). But don't be fooled into thinking he just sits in the pocket all day, as he also led the SCSU ground attack with more than 700 yards and nine touchdowns rushing.
The Huskies are balanced on offense, averaging 202 yards per game on the ground and 230 via the air. The bulk of the ground work his handled by Klaphake, especially considering that injury has turned his backfield into a carousel of cast members. Look for Damon Treat and Mike Walker to see much of the action on Saturday, along with Dante Steward used primarily as a short-yardage option. None of these three has played a full compliment of games this season, and it seems unclear which will prove to be the go-to guy in the ground game if Klaphake isn't able to shoulder the load.
There is not doubt who the go-to guy will be when the Huskies throw the ball. Fred Williams leads the country in touchdown receptions with sixteen, and is eighth overall nationally raking in 116.9 yards per game. Williams is an All-America candidate and will have to draw plenty of attention from the Hillsdale secondary.
On defense for St. Cloud, keep an eye on Joel Godfredsen and Josh Popanda up front, as each has more than eight sacks on the season. Tyler Niedfeldt leads the Huskies with six interceptions, but the linchpin of the secondary (and probably the defense as a whole) is safety Tony Kubes who leads the team in tackles and is the on-field general.
While the SCSU offense is certainly potent, Kubes and the rest of his defensive mates will more than have their hands full with a Hillsdale offense that only averages about ten fewer yards per game than the Huskies, and led the GLIAC in passing at more than 262 yards per game. St. Cloud will be forced to reckon a Hillsdale offense that is led by the nation's most efficient passer in GLIAC Player of the Year Troy Weatherhead, who set a conference record this year by completing nearly 78% of his passes. Weatherhead totaled more than 2,800 yards through the air, and threw 22 scoring tosses in the process. Nine of those touchdowns were hauled in by Andre Holmes, who was seventeenth in the country with more than 105 yards receiving per game. This tandem has terrorized GLIAC defenses for the last couple of seasons, and Holmes should present match-up problems for the Husky corners with his 6'5" frame. In addition, Mike Blanchard is solid threat opposite Holmes, making double-covering the big guy far less appealing.
While Weatherhead is a terrific passer, he doesn't do much for the Chargers in the run game. That, of course, is left to sophomore Joe Glendening who set a school record for carries this year on his way to 1,483 yards and fifteen touchdowns rushing. The Hillsdale ground game is all about moving people out of the way and letting Glendening do his thing. The Chargers use a senior-laden offensive line to handle the necessary dirty work, and should be an advantage as the game wears on given how physical and athletic this group is.
The defense will have its work cut out for it trying to contain Williams and Klaphake. Safeties Nick Hixson and Joe Vear lead the team in tackles and seem to be all over the field on nearly every play. It will be up to them to ball hawk and make sure the Huskies don't break any big plays. They should get some help up front from Jed Thompson, who has become a significant force this season from his defensive end position.
This should be an entertaining game between two teams that share a striking number of similarities. Each puts up very similar numbers in terms of total offense, scoring offense and scoring defense. Both clubs were also very close to being seeded much higher. St. Cloud had built a nine-point, fourth-quarter advantage over Augustana back in week one, only to have a bad snap on a punt and a late interception unravel things. In addition, they trailed Duluth by a scant three points at halftime a few weeks ago before getting trounced in the second half. Of course, this column has documented the blown scoring chances for Hillsdale (including a 100-yard pick-six in the other direction) at Wayne State a few weeks back, and the almost inconceivable way the Chargers lost at Grand Valley in week two.
So where does the game turn with these evenly matched clubs? I'll start up front. Hillsdale has consistently been able to win the battle in the trenches this year, especially on offense. While this will be a stern test for them, the Charger O-line is a shade bigger than the defensive front of the Huskies, and is likely just as athletic. If Hillsdale is able to get any kind of a lead early and use their ground and short passing games to control the clock, they will be in good shape.
The notion of controlling the clock leads me to the next key difference, which is style of play. St. Cloud can control things, but they typically look to score quickly and have only out-possessed their opponents by about a minute a game. Conversely, the Chargers hold the ball for an average of nine and a half minutes more per game than their opposition. Hillsdale loves long, sustained drives and they are one of the top teams in the country in crafting those types of possessions. They are also the least penalized team in the GLIAC, lead the country in third-down conversion percentage, and are third nationally in terms of fewest giveaways. In short, getting Hillsdale's offense off the field is no easy task. While the Huskies are one of the top-rated clubs nationally in forcing turnovers they have struggled against better opponents, including forcing none in their two losses for a turnover margin of -6 (they were +24 in their other nine games). Again, if Hillsdale is able to assert itself and its style of play, it will be a significant advantage.
Last, it appears that proficient passing games have found success at times against the Huskies, and Hillsdale has the weapons necessary to exploit this. Of course, if Hillsdale isn't able to contain Klaphake and Company and the game turns into more of a track meet, this could spell trouble for Hillsdale. While the Chargers have improved over the course of the year on defense they have been prone to struggling against quarterbacks with the skill set they will face on Saturday. The defense MUST play well or the advantage they should have with their offense will be neutralized.
Prediction - Hillsdale has playoff experience on their side, as well as a very seasoned quarterback. If they can assert their style of play and avoid the big mistakes, I like them to win. I will caution, however, that if Phillip Klaphake has a big day this could be a very tough victory for the Chargers to earn. Hillsdale 27, St. Cloud 23.