“When you're in the same conference, you see each other on film all the time, so the other team is on your mind more,” said Wabash head coach Erik Raeburn. “It's a pretty intense rivalry, you know, even when we weren't in the same conference, but you see them on film more now, so for that reason I think having them in our conference does add to the rivalry.”
The conference game is the first in 15 years since the two teams were members of the Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference (now known as the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference). DePauw left the conference in 1998 and Wabash left in 1999. Then two years ago, DePauw joined Wabash in the Northern Collegiate Athletic Conference, with football becoming a member this year after fulfilling previous schedule agreements last season.
In the first NCAC meeting, Wabash comes in with a three-game winning streak in the series. The Little Giants have dominated the past three years by a combined 124-26 score.
DePauw will rely on a passing attack featuring a dual-quarterback system to try and change recent history. Tigers' sophomore Drew Seaman and freshman Justin Murray have combined for 2,092 yards in the air.
“I think both kids bring two totally different things to the table,” DePauw's interim head coach Scott Srnka said. “Drew, he's more cerebral. He's very good at seeing coverage and knowing where to go with the ball. Justin is more of an explosive type of kid that can hurt you with his feet and his arm.”
It helps the young quarterbacks to have plenty of targets to throw to. DePauw has nine players with at least 100 yards receiving and no one with over 400.
“They have a group of receivers and tight ends who run great routes and have good hands, and that gives whichever quarterback in the game some great targets to throw to,” Raeburn said. “In the last two weeks, we have played poor pass defense, so that's a huge concern for us.”
This struggle for DePauw will need to be exploited, as Wabash's rush defense is allowing only 2.79 yards a carry and ranked No. 15 in the country. And as Wabash stops the run, it also relies on it offensively in its balanced attack.
The Little Giants have only a 2-yard difference between their ground and passing game at 1826 and 1828 yards. The rushing game is lead by Bluffton native and junior Tyler Holmes, who has 898 yards and four touchdowns.
Following behind him, is dual-threat quarterback Chase Belton. The senior has eight rushing touchdowns to go with 15 through the air.
“When we haven't run the ball well, we haven't played well offensively, so it's a big key for us,” Raeburn said. “Seems like when we run the ball well, it opens up more of the passing game, get some play-action going, but when we struggled running the football, it's really made it difficult on us.”
Belton's play is needed to keep Wabash's slim playoff hopes alive. Last week the Little Giants lost to Oberlin to put them a game behind three teams in the NCAC conference chase.
“Certainly glad we have a game like this after the disappointment of last week,” Raeburn said. “Hate to have that (loss) be the kind of season finale, so to have a huge rivalry game to play, it gives us a chance to play our best and try to erase the memory of last week.”
And in a few years, maybe the rivalry game will be played for more than the 300-lb bell and add even more intensity.
“I think in coming years, hopefully next year, this game will ratchet up even more because we will be playing for a conference championship,” Srnka said. “It adds a lot more value, if you need more value.”