Bill Lynch has coached in big games. While head coach at Indiana, he took the Hoosiers to a bowl in his first season and was 2-2 in the Old Oaken Bucket game against Purdue.
Still, Lynch, now head coach at DePauw University, feels like the big school rivalry doesn't match-up to the Monon Bell Classic played between his Tigers (4-5) and No. 18 Wabash College (8-1). The historic series has its 120th game Saturday at 1:07 p.m. at DePauw.
“What is special about the Monon Bell Game and the Wabash-DePauw rivalry, it's a really important part of the fabric of both institutions,” Lynch, who was previously DePauw's coach for one season in 2004, said. “You can't go to DePauw or Wabash and don't feel the intensity of it and how important it is and how fun it is versus, like Indiana-Purdue.
“It's (the Old Oaken Bucket) a great rivalry, but the universities are so big, so many people there aren't football fans and don't really realize there is a football game on Saturday. Everybody at Wabash and DePauw knows it's Bell week and become football fans for that week.”
Lynch comes back to the rivalry at a time Wabash's head coach seems to have figured it out. Erik Raeburn has led the Little Giants to four consecutive wins in impressive fashion with a combined 147-26 score, which included two of the six largest victories in the rivalry's history.
This year's game also has Wabash attempting to tie the third longest win streak in the series at five and it would be the first time the school has won five straight in nearly 50 years when it did so from 1949-1954.
“They've all seemed incredibly difficult to win to me, but I know we had great players the last four years and our guys, for whatever reason, have played pretty well in that game,” Raeburn said. “You look back over the last four years and each of those games are probably the best regular season game we've played all year.”
For Wabash to keep the Bell it will lean on a top-ranked defense. The Little Giants have Div. III's fourth best total defense, allowing an average of only 219.7 yards a game.
The team uses its speed to get after the quarterback to create negative plays and turnovers. Led by linebackers Nate Scola and Cody Buresh, the Little Giants have the most sacks in the country with 35 and lead it in turnover margin.
“They thrive off turnovers and creating field position and they score off turnovers,” Lynch said. “They are very talented, and they do a great job of stripping the ball and they put so much pressure on the quarterback to throw it up and get the interception.”
The Little Giants also control the game on the ground offensively. They average 239.3 rushing yards, and it hasn't been with just one player.
Wabash has seen injuries to its top two backs this season, including Bluffton native Tyler Holmes who hasn't played since the second game of the season. It's still gotten production with dual-threat quarterback Michael Putko and running backs Anthony Stella and Grant Kiembara.
DePauw on the other hand has seen its season turnaround as players have stepped into different roles. After starting the season 0-4, the Tigers have won four of their last five games behind freshman quarterback Matt Hunt, who has thrown 14 touchdowns to three interceptions.
Hunt stepping into the starting role was just one switch and catalyst to the improvement. Lynch also moved Nikko Sansone from wide receiver to running back and has seen the progression of former basketball player Barry Flynn at wide receiver be instrumental in DePauw's offense. Sansone has averaged over 100 all-purpose yards a game and
Flynn averages 91 receiving yards a game to go along with nine touchdowns.
“(Sansone) is a really big weapon in the passing game and out of all the backs we've played against, he's hands down the best receiver out of the backfield,” Raeburn said. “Then Flynn is a great receiver as well. He's about 6'5” and can really jump and has maybe the best ball skills that I've ever seen. We have some good defensive backs but most of 'em are shorter guys so it's an even bigger advantage against us.”
DePauw is hopeful this can help propel them to stopping Wabash from continuing its recent run of dominance. Lynch certainly knows about coaching in big games, but for everyone, this is the game that defines their season and careers at these two schools.
“As a Wabash football player, people kind of associate you with your Bell game your senior year, and so 20 years from now, they won't remember all the scores of the game, but they'll remember that was the year you helped our team win or we got beat,” Raeburn said. “Seniors would like to end their Bell game experience with a win as opposed to a loss, but we know they'll play their best game of the season against
us, so it's a great challenge, and we feel fortunate to have a big game that we have an opportunity to play in.”