Denison hangs on to playoff hopes

Brian Hofmann The Columbus Dispatch
Denison receiver David Weimar, a senior from Pickerington, has 637 yards and nine touchdowns receiving this season. [Jace Delgado/Denison University]

Denison at Kenyon

NOON, GAMBIER

Records: Denison 7-2, 7-1 North Coast Athletic Conference; Kenyon 0-9, 0-8

Series: Denison leads 44-23-2.

Last meeting: Denison won 51-20 last season in Granville.

Denison has enjoyed a wave of success with six straight winning seasons under coach Jack Hatem. But at least two things have separated these Big Red teams from the program’s high-water mark of the 1980s: a conference championship and an appearance in the Division III playoffs.

Both remain within reach Saturday with a victory over winless Kenyon.

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Behind senior quarterback Canaan Gebele, the Big Red presents a balanced offense, averaging 229.9 yards passing and 258.3 rushing. Gebele is a factor both ways, with 22 touchdowns passing and 13 rushing.

Junior running back Alex Minton has 1,164 yards and nine touchdowns operating behind what Hatem calls the best offensive line he has had at Denison. Senior receiver David Weimar of Pickerington Central has 637 yards and nine touchdowns, and senior H-back C.J. Davis has four TDs among his nine receptions.

Gebele and Weimar have been contributors since they were freshmen together.

“We have a connection we feel when I'm running around and he's throwing it,” Weimar said. “It's really been awesome to have that consistency at quarterback.”

The defense limits opponents to 23.0 points per game. Underclassmen have been among the top contributors, including two defensive backs with local ties: Freshman Ryan Hallinan of Westerville Central has 48 tackles, and sophomore Michael Flanagan of Dublin Jerome has two interceptions and 10 passes broken up.

Hatem credits a senior, Ryan Zinkula, for the secondary’s success.

“Going into the year, that was a group in the back that didn't have a lot of experience,” Hatem said. “They had a ton of talent. (Zinkula) had to take control of that group and play virtually captain/assistant coach.”

In the Big Red’s heyday, the team went undefeated in 1985 to make the Division III playoffs and won nine straight in ’86. Coach Keith Piper, who went 200-142-9 from 1954 to ’92, confounded opposing defenses and piled up points by running the largely forgotten single wing offense. But Denison hasn’t won an NCAC title since that two-year run.

In recent years, the league has been the domain of Wittenberg and Wabash. Both are 8-1 overall and 7-1 in the conference this season, and unlike Dension, they’re nationally ranked, at Nos. 19 and 20 in the coaches poll.

But the Big Red continues to close the gap, beating Wabash 34-10 this season a week before falling to Wittenberg only after four overtime periods 68-66. A win over Kenyon means, at least, a share of the NCAC title, and as Hatem has it figured, if combined with a Wabash win over DePauw (4-5, 4-4), it would be enough to put the Big Red in the playoffs.

“We're going to try to play the best football we have all season,” Hatem said, “and then, I guess, we're going to root for the Wabash Little Giants.”

Ohio Dominican at Lake Erie

NOON, PAINESVILLE

In a situation reminiscent of Denison’s, ODU (8-2, 5-2 Great Midwest Athletic Conference) needs a victory over a winless opponent and some help to reach the Division II playoffs. With games on tap between teams ranked above the No. 9 Panthers in their region, the potential to move into the top seven is there.

Baldwin Wallace at John Carroll

1 P.M., UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS

Emotions run high when these rivals meet, and the stakes will be high, too. Both teams are 8-1 overall and 7-1 in the Ohio Athletic Conference, tied for second place behind undefeated Mount Union, and both are nationally ranked, John Carroll No. 10 and Baldwin Wallace No. 21 in the Division III coaches poll.

South Florida at Cincinnati

7 P.M., CINCINNATI

The Bulls (7-2, 3-2 American Athletic Conference East) are 11th nationally in total offense at 492 yards per game, but the Bearcats (8-1, 4-1) will counter with a defense that features tackle Cortez Broughton, an AAC player of the week after making 10 tackles against Navy.

bhofmann@dispatch.com

@BrianHofmann

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