Fresh off win over No. 12 Wheaton, football turns to No. 17 Illinois Wesleyan

Dorian DeBose | Senior Sports Editor

Expectations for the Washington University football team were unclear at the start of the season. A year removed from a 3-6 campaign that featured quarterback controversy and one of the most difficult schedules in the country, the Bears appeared to be on stable ground. They were entering a new conference, returned a majority of starters and generally looked like a team that could rebound.

Junior Emmanuel Engermann keeps away from Wheaton College defense Oct. 13. The Bears won their fourth-straight game Saturday in a 17-10 upset win over No. 12-ranked Wheaton.Grace Bruton | Student Life

Junior Emmanuel Engermann keeps away from Wheaton College defense Oct. 13. The Bears won their fourth-straight game Saturday in a 17-10 upset win over No. 12-ranked Wheaton.

Still, through six games, the Bears have shattered expectations. At 5-1, they’re currently second in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) and could easily move into a tie for first with a win this week at home against No. 17 Illinois Wesleyan University.

Wash. U.’s defense has been a key component to their success this season. The Red and Green are currently in the top-20 in the NCAA in sacks per game (4.33, fifth) and tackles for loss per game (9.0, 19th). They have managed to accumulate a plus-five turnover margin over the course of the season.

Sophomore defensive lineman and reigning CCIW Defensive Player of the Week Peter Pigatti has led the charge for the Bear rush so far. Pigatti is averaging 1.33 sacks per game for the season. Senior linebacker Jake Coon leads the CCIW in tackles (65) and ranks 12th in NCAA Division III in solo tackles per game (6.8). Pigatti and Coon have both made the Team of the Week during the season, along with senior defensive back Jeff Marek.

That defensive presence was on show in their most recent game against No. 12 Wheaton College. The Bears pulled out a 17-10 slugfest against the Thunder, holding Wheaton to minus-three rushing yards and 1-for-14 on third downs, while forcing three turnovers and nine punts. The win was the first against a ranked opponent for the Bears since 2010, when the Bears defeated then-No. 19 Wabash College.

The Red and Green offense has held its own as well this season. Wash. U. has averaged 29.7 points per game and 376.0 yards per game. Junior quarterback and punter Johnny Davidson has turned a corner, ranking 11th in the nation in completion percentage at 69.1 percent and leading the conference in punting average (39.9 yards). Davidson’s season through the air, combined with a stable of productive running backs, has been a consistent formula for solid offensive performances.

Both sides of the Red and Green will need to be on their game on Saturday when the Bears take on Illinois Wesleyan. The Titans are having a prolific year on offense, scoring 34.7 points per game and averaging 451.3 yards per game. The Titans have had a great year keeping drives alive, converting on just under 50 percent of their third down opportunities. On the defensive side, IWU has forced 13 turnovers, two fewer than the Bears. IWU has also turned the ball over three more times than the Red and Green.

The Bears hold a narrow lead in the all-time series against the Titans, 9-8. The last meeting was in 2002, when the Titans came back to win 31-24 in overtime. Both head coach Larry Kindbom and IWU head coach Norm Eash were on the sidelines for that match up. Kindbom and Eash are two of the coaches with the most wins all-time in Division III football history. Kindbom, now in his 30th season at Wash. U, and his 36th overall, ranks sixth with 210 total wins, while Eash, in his 32nd season at IWU, isn’t far behind Kindbom with 205 wins of his own to place eighth. Under Eash’s leadership, IWU has become a CCIW powerhouse: The program has won eight CCIW championships and made six NCAA Division III playoff appearances with Eash’s guidance. Eash has been named CCIW Coach of the Year six times and is the coach with the most wins all-time in the league

A win for the Bears would take them over the unbeaten Titans in the conference standings, giving them the inside track for the CCIW crown and the accompanying spot in the NCAA playoffs.

The game will take place on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Francis Field.