If Nebraska Wesleyan’s defense were a stock, the major indicators would say this is a buying opportunity.
The Prairie Wolves’ work in August seems to show that this is a group on the rise, one year after the defense surrendered an average of 38.7 points and 477.8 yards per game as NWU struggled to a 2-8 record.
The Wolves’ defense did not allow Concordia University to reach the end zone in a two-hour scrimmage in Seward last Saturday. And that’s how they’ve played in practice as well during fall camp, according to NWU coach Brian Keller.
The question of whether all that translates to success when it counts will be answered Saturday in NWU’s season-opener at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.
The scrimmage last Saturday against the Bulldogs “showed it’s a new year, we have a new system and that we can execute it,” said senior defensive tackle Andrew Stolpe, a 6-foot, 275-pounder who is a three-year starter with 64 tackles and four behind the line of scrimmage in his career. “We have a lot of new faces, but we have some young guys who are ready to get after it."
The NWU defense returns five starters, and the line is one most of experienced areas of the entire team. Joining Stolpe up front is senior defensive end Grant Bednar (6-1, 230), another returning starter who had 28 tackles last season (55 in his career), and senior defensive tackle Grant McGill (6-2, 240), a Waverly graduate who appeared in nine games in 2017.
How they hold up in the trenches will be critical against a Concordia College offense that was ninth in NCAA Division III rushing a year ago, averaging 282.4 yards per game. The Cobbers had 238 yards on the ground in a 34-14 win at NWU in the 2017 season opener.
“The D-line has done a good job in fall camp of knowing their responsibilities and fulfilling them,” Bednar said. “It’s important against teams that run the ball a lot that each person on the field knows what their responsibilities are and executes them. I think we’ll do well.”
McGill agrees with that assessment. “We’ve taken a step forward every practice,” he said. “It’s going to be a great day Saturday.”
Keller said the trio of Stolpe, Bednar and McGill “have played a lot of productive college football” the past of couple of years.
“You’ve got a chance as a defense if you can control things up front,” added Keller, who is entering his 23rd season as the NWU head coach. “Defensively we have a little more speed on the field this year and we’re a little more aggressive. It’s been tough in practice for our offense. They’ve made us earn everything.”
Keller is being careful not to read too much into the scrimmage a week ago.
“About the first eight plays are 1s vs. 1s; after that, you really don’t know who you’re going against,” Keller said. “It’s kind of hard to gauge. We shut them out of the end zone, so you have to be pleased with that.”
It appeared early in camp that the Prairie Wolves had lost senior slotback/punter/kicker Jackson Hinze for the season to an ACL tear in his right knee. The right-footed Hinze, however, has continued to kick and will be the punter Saturday at Concordia.
“You have to be an outstanding athlete to do what he’s doing,” Keller said about Hinze, who hit a 40-yard field goal toward the end of practice Thursday. “He looks good (punting), but you should’ve seen him before he got hurt. He looked really good.”
Nebraska Wesleyan at Concordia College, 1 p.m., Jake Christensen Stadium, Moorhead, Minnesota: The Cobbers just missed the playoffs last season, going 8-2 and finishing No. 21 in the final NCAA Division III poll. They are No. 28 in the preseason national rankings. Concordia must replace Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference MVP running back Chad Johnson, but return fifth-year senior Dane Ringquist at running back, starting quarterback Blake Kragness and three offensive linemen, including preseason All-American Brandon Bundgaard. The Cobbers have three all-conference players back on defense in linebackers Alex Berg and Andrew Thompson and cornerback Ethan Eagerton.
Doane and Concordia are both off this week.
Other Saturday games
Maysville State at Midland, 1 p.m.
Hastings at Panhandle State, Goodwell, Oklahoma, 6 p.m.
Black Hills State (SD) at Chadron State, 6:30 p.m. MT