DECATUR — To say Millikin has a big game Saturday would be an understatement.
In fact, it’s the game of the year.
“Game of the year? Yes, absolutely,” Millikin coach Dan Gritti said. “Every year Illinois Wesleyan is our biggest game of the year. This year it's extra.”
That little “extra” is that a victory over the Titans would stop an outright CCIW championship for Wesleyan and also bolster the Big Blue’s chances at getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs.
And if things fall just right on Saturday, Millikin could even earn a share of the CCIW title.
“We really haven’t spent that much time talking about a conference championship,” Gritti said. “I think we are more focused on 8-2 and the added bonus of denying Wesleyan a conference championship because if they win it’s certain that they are the champs.”
If Millikin wins Saturday and North Central loses to Elmhurst, it would leave Wesleyan, North Central, and Millikin all with 8-2, 6-2 CCIW records.
Each team would be declared co-champion, but North Central would earn the automatic bid into the NCAA playoffs after beating both Millikin and Wesleyan in the regular season.
The Big Blue would then hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA playoffs, but first Millikin has to first overcome a Wesleyan defense that allows 11.3 points per game, tops in the CCIW.
"Wesleyan is so technically sound. They don’t do anything spectacular but they do everything right," Gritti said. "You know they are not going to make mistakes. You are going to have to go out and make plays."
The Titans' defense grabs the headlines but their offense shouldn't be underestimated.
"I think their offense probably doesn’t get what’s due because their defense is so good, so why take risks on offense?" Gritti said. "We haven’t really seen them put in a situation where they have to score to keep up and that’s quite honestly what we are hoping to do on Saturday."
A key weapon in the Millikin offense as it tests the Titans defense will be freshmen running back Jazontae Howard.
Howard grabbed only a handful of carries in the Big Blue's first four games but when an opportunity arrived in Week 5 against Wheaton, he took it.
"Since I was younger they’ve always told me to take advantage of every opportunity that I get and against Wheaton I got the opportunity to get in and I knew it was a big game for us," he said. "People were doubting us ... I like that. Me being a short and small guy, I always have this underdog kind of feel so I got that feeling when they were doubting us about Wheaton so it kind of made me play better and since then it’s been steady progress."
The 5-foot-6 Howard has since averaged 96 yards a game on 6.8 yards per carry.
"Jazontae makes us a lot more explosive because if you don’t have that run game now we are forced to dink and dunk and people are going to play deep zone on us," Gritti said. "He’s really added that dimension and our offense has become infinitely more efficient since he’s been rolling."
Howard's future is bright as he continues to improve.
"He’s still learning and that’s the hard part — in high school he was such a great athlete, he could get away with just doing anything athletic on the field," Gritti said. "This year he’s had to be more controlled and I think that was the first couple weeks learning to let his athleticism operate not outside the system but inside of it.
"He’s had a great development and has been a dual threat guy for us because he catches the ball out of the backfield so well."
Howard is also learning quickly about Millikin's rivalry with Wesleyan.
"They have preached that to us. Yeah, we don’t like Wesleyan. We get the feeling that we really don’t like Wesleyan," he said. "Last year was a pretty close game and they are our rivals so definitely there is going to be some bad blood on the field. It’s going to be a battle but I think we are definitely ready for it."