PLU Approach: Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Happy
Seattle Times Staff Columnist
SALEM, Va. – Frosty Westering was chattering about how Knute Rockne developed the Notre Dame shift from watching chorus girls.
“We’ll be shifting against Rowan and we don’t even care where our players line up originally, it’s up to them,” Westering, the Pacific Lutheran coach, said with a laugh. “You know, we’re just going to have a great time.”
Then they introduced each team’s starting players at yesterday’s kickoff luncheon for today’s NCAA Division III championship, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
“Looks like we’re leading the sheep to slaughter, doesn’t it?” said Frosty’s son, Scott, the offensive coordinator at Pacific Lutheran.
“Feed the size and speed of the players into a computer and we lose 100 of 100 games played.”
Rowan College of New Jersey, in one corner, had far bigger necks, shirts and probably egos. For certain, it has two defensive linemen who played at Maryland among four Division I transfers in its starting lineup, and nine transfers in all.
In the other corner, PLU was puny, without a defensive lineman over 250 pounds, with only one offensive lineman as big as all five Rowan starters, impressive only in how often the players smiled and hugged their coach.
Clearly the Lutes weren’t caught up in the moment, the demands of time and travel to get here, their first chance to win an NCAA championship, their first appearance on national television (ESPN2 at 10 a.m.) in six years.
A crowd of about 3,500 is expected to sit in 50-degree temperatures and off-and-on sunshine to watch a game that has been played in 7,000-seat Salem Stadium for seven years.
Rowan has been here four times before, losing all four, but that was before it stunned Mount Union last week, ending an NCAA record 54-game winning streak and the presence of the team that had beaten it three of the four times.
“Our goal hasn’t been to beat Mount Union,” said Rowan Coach K.C. Keeler, “it was to be the best team in the country. To get the ring.”
PLU’s goals are something else, always have been.
As Frosty told his team, “Men, let’s not wait until the final score to see if we’ve had a great time. Let’s enjoy everything about being here, the travel, the people we’ve met, the beautiful mountains surrounding this valley, the chance to be together for one more game.”
But will it be a game? As a No. 7 seed, PLU was one of the last teams to get in the playoffs and must be worn out from travel that has taken it to Iowa, Minnesota and Texas in the past three weeks, as well as here, in southwest Virginia, about 40 miles from Blacksburg and the miracle of Virginia Tech’s unbeaten season.
And Rowan is formidable, but then so was last week’s opponent, No. 2-ranked Trinity of Texas. PLU won that game, 49-28, ending Trinity’s 24-game winning streak at home.
“If you focus on a purely physical matchup with Rowan,” said Scott Westering, “we are facing an unwinnable battle.”
As much as the Rowan coaches might have seen of PLU in the two videos they were able to watch, they haven’t seen anything yet.
Offensively, PLU does everything. It runs out of more formations than perhaps any team in the country, then it shifts from those, and audibles from those.
“The key for us is to make Rowan’s defense, which is the best in the country, think. If their players are thinking, then they aren’t playing with the aggression they normally do and the power differential is diminished,” Scott Westering said.
The Lutes aren’t without talent. Primarily, they have two big-time players in quarterback Chad Johnson, Frosty’s grandson, and fullback Anthony Hicks, the former Husky and PLU’s lone Division I transfer.
“It isn’t as if they shut down Hicks that we are up a creek,” said Scott Westering. “There are many things we can do.”
Defensively the Lutes used delayed blitzes to surprise and snuff Trinity. Today, they have to slow down Rowan running back Justin Wright, who averages 7 yards a carry.
PLU’s No. 2 ground gainer is senior Jacob Croft from Shorecrest, who had to overcome injuries from a serious car accident after high school even to be on the field.
At yesterday’s luncheon, Croft wasn’t paying Rowan much mind.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “We care about us, not them. We play with such passion and fun that we can overcome size and strength.”
By their own happy admission, the Lutes didn’t come here to win. They’ve come to play as well as they can, and have a good time.
The pressure clearly is on the Rowan players trying to avenge four losses here in the past six years. Nothing they saw yesterday from PLU would seem to stand in their way, not the corny, 72-year-old coach, not the scrubbed and smiling faces of their smaller opponents.
“No fear here, no egos here,” said Frosty. “Amazing what can happen when you’re freed up to play without worry.”
It looked yesterday as though amazing had run its course for PLU. But don’t worry. The Lutes don’t.