Dragons ready for ‘showtime’ at Findlay
TU can win conference outright, potentially clinch a postseason berth with victory
The Dragons know what’s at stake, they know what’s in front of them.
And talking to three of Tiffin University’s stars Thursday, the confidence was apparent.
But so was their sense of history.
Tiffin travels to Findlay today for a noon game with the Oilers. If Tiffin wins, it will win the Great-Midwest Athletic Conference outright. Going into the game, the No. 21 Dragons also are ranked eighth in the regional rankings, meaning that a win will put them in position for their first Division II playoff appearance.
The Dragons are confident, and they have reason to be. They’ve won eight consecutive games. They’ve clinched a share of the conference crown.
And from talking to quarterback Nate Watson, you sense they’re ready for today.
“It’s showtime,” he said. “We’ve got one thing on our mind. It’s showtime.”
Tiffin’s Charlie Cleveland, one of the best defensive linemen in Division II, said the Dragons know what they can do.
“At this point in the season, we’re as confident as possible,” said Cleveland, who has 13 ½ tackles for a loss and 8 ½ sacks. “We’ve been having a long run of good games. We had a couple shutouts this season, we had a couple games where we held teams to under 100 yards rushing, so we never go into a game thinking we’re inferior to anyone.”
The offense also has reason to feel good about itself. Watson has thrown for 2,375 yards and 25 touchdowns. Receiver Stanley Jackson has 57 catches for 979 yards and nine scores, while Devin Butler (565 receiving yards, four touchdowns) and Carey graduate Gavin Woods (339 receiving yards, five touchdowns) also have had strong seasons.
But the best individual season may belong to tailback JaQuan Hardy. The redshirt junior has run for nearly 1,200 yards and 13 scores. And he’s done it while sharing some of the load with another talented back in Kyle Brunson (403 yards).
Watson said Hardy is a special player.
“Quan is a… he’s a different breed,” Watson said. Some of the plays that he makes, you don’t see guys make. I’m very fortunate to have him on our side. I can definitely say that.”
Hardy said he feels fortunate to be with the Dragons.
“I’m just grateful. I feel like everything happens for a reason, but at the end of the day I’m grateful, and I’m just happy that I’m here,” Hardy said. “This team competes like no other.”
The Dragons were forced to compete after they stumbled early in the season against Saginaw Valley State.
After beating Northwood 22-19 in Week 1, Tiffin traveled to SVSU, and the Cardinals pounced. They led 28-0 in the second quarter and beat TU, 35-20.
“It was definitely a slap in the face, if anything,” Cleveland said. “We thought we were gonna go in there and dominate, like we always do, but we were too lackadaisical, and we thought it was just gonna come to us.”
“I would say it was an eye-opener,” Watson said. At the beginning of the season, we had the utmost confidence; we were pretty cocky about ourselves. I feel like that was kind of a reality check for us. We’ve got all this talent, but we’ve got to play well to win games.”
But maybe the loss had a positive result. After all, Tiffin hasn’t lost since, and all of its wins since have been by at least two scores.
“I think when you suffer a loss like that, it goes one of two ways,” said Tiffin coach Cris Reisert. “It either cripples you, or it makes you stronger. And, our guys came together, they took the coaching after it, they rallied together, they’ve worked, and it’s made us stronger.”
Watson also credited Reisert — a first-year head coach — with bringing the right attitude to TU.
“Coach Reisert has brought a different swagger to the team when he first got here, and I feel like we just kind of took advantage of the situation and went with it,” he said.
Tiffin will need that attitude today.
Findlay comes in at 6-2, 5-1, meaning it can clinch a share of the championship with a win.
Quarterback Matt Winzeler has thrown for 2,150 yards and 23 touchdowns, while running backs Brian Benson and Nate Slagel have combined for 1,558 yards and 12 touchdowns. Receiver Ruben Flowers has 60 catches for 822 yards and seven touchdowns.
On defense, sophomore defensive back Christopher Jefferson has nine interceptions, and defensive lineman David Marbury has 5 ½ sacks.
Reisert knows about Findlay, from his personal experience as a quarterback.
“Findlay’s a good football team, a good football program. They’ve been consistent for a long time now,” Reisert said. I’ve seen them back to my (Ohio Dominican) days, and they were consistent even back then.
“The thing that they do well, they play good team defense, they stop the run and they run the ball on offense,” Reisert said. “They’ve got some weapons; they’ve got two big running backs. They’ve got a good receiver and a quarterback who has grown since the season’s gone on.”
But then there’s the history.
The Dragons and Oilers first played in 1986, the first of 27 meetings. Findlay has won 26, and the Dragons only victory came in 1993, before all of Tiffin’s players were born.
Cleveland, Watson and Hardy all have seen their seasons end — perhaps prematurely — due to losses to Findlay.
But Cleveland said Tiffin can’t make the game bigger than it is.
“If we look at this game like some big obstacle, or compare it to like a ‘Boss Level’ in a video game, we’re never gonna get what we need out of it,” he said.
Hardy said the game isn’t about Findlay. It’s about the Dragons.
“At the end of the day, it’s just us,” he said. “So as long as you go out there, have fun and just execute, it should be a good game.”
And Watson said the team still has room to grow, especially on offense.
“Honestly, as an offense, I don’t feel like we’ve played a perfect game yet,” he said. “It’s good to see…we can still put points on the board and not play a perfect game. We haven’t played a perfect game yet, so we just want to go into this game, try to make as few mistakes as possible.”
As for Reisert — who’s new to the Tiffin-Findlay clashes — he played down the history between the teams.
“They’re certainly a formidable test for us. The way we attack the week is, it’s just the next opponent,” he said. “We’re not making it any bigger than it needs to be. For us it’s just another opportunity to play a perfect football game, which is what we try to do each week, and that’s challenge.”
As for the playoffs, Reisert said it hasn’t been discussed.
“I have not mentioned it one time,” he said.
The Dragons are hoping it comes up after the game.
“Every team that you’re on, you always try to leave a legacy behind,” Cleveland said. I feel like this game can be the start of our legacy for the next couple of years with coach Reisert.”