There's a lot riding on Saturday's football showdown between undefeated College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin leaders Wheaton and North Central.
The big CCIW matchup takes place at the Cardinals' Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium at 7 p.m. (Live streaming at nctv17.com; radio at WONC 89.1-FM).
D3 football rankingsThe latest rankings from the American Football Coaches Association:
1. Mount Union (Ohio): 5-0 (1042)
2. Wis.-Whitewater: 5-0 (1002)
3. Hardin-Baylor (Texas): 5-0 (946)
4. St. Thomas (Minn.): 6-0 (926)
5. Wheaton (Ill.): 6-0 (836)
6. North Central (Ill.): 5-0 (815)
7. Wis.-Oshkosh: 4-1 (757)
As it has for the past decade, the Battle for the Little Brass Bell game will determine which team takes over first place in the conference. And this time it also will affect national rankings.
"This game is huge every year for both teams," said North Central coach Jeff Thorne. "The teams are, as always, evenly matched and all the kids are really excited."
"We have a healthy rivalry," said Wheaton coach Mike Swider. "This promises to be an exciting game. Both teams are extremely balanced this year."
North Central's Cardinals (5-0, 3-0) are ranked sixth nationally in both the D3football.com and the American Football Coaches Association's Top 25 polls. The Wheaton Thunder (6-0, 4-0) is ranked fifth by the AFC and 11th by D3 football.com.
The Little Brass Bell traveling trophy has been the winner's reward since 1946. Wheaton has a 47-19 edge in the trophy games and a 50-41-3 lead in the series overall. Last year's 17-9 win by Wheaton drew 5,000 fans, and the 2014 contest attracted more than 4,500.
Wheaton has won the past two Little Brass Bell games after conceding five of the previous six to North Central. Wheaton has been the CCIW champions the past two years and carries a 27-game winning streak into Saturday's match, while the Cardinals have won or shared the conference title the previous eight years.
"These teams are evenly matched," Thorne said. "It will be a physical football game that will be won and lost at the line of scrimmage. Wheaton is strong at all positions on offense and defense, and we have a lot of talent and versatility."
Both teams rely on outstanding leadership from the quarterback position. The Thunder is led by Andrew Bowers, who has thrown for four touchdowns in each of the team's last two victories. He has a 63.9 percent completion average and utilizes several top-flight receivers in tight end Zach Lindquist and wideouts Chase White, Trey Henley and Phillip Nichols. Running back Sola Olateju averages 6.5 yards per carry and returning all-American Peter Gibson leads the Thunder offensive line.
The Wheaton defense is anchored by defensive end Chase Greenlee, Patrick O'Connell, nose tackle Noah Spielman, and linebackers, Eric Stevenson, Luke Sahly and Caleb Ashby
"We've been getting better every week," Swider said. "And we're in a good place for this time of the season. We just have to perform on offense, defense and on special teams. We can't give them short fields and we have to make them work for their scores."
North Central's attack is led by redshirt freshman Broc Rutter, a Neuqua Valley graduate and Indiana State transfer who tossed five touchdown passes and completed 30 of 36 passes for a season-high 358 yards in last week's 35-14 win over North Park.
Standout receiver Alex Ulmer caught a career-high 11 passes for the Cardinals, and Dylan Warden had 3 touchdown receptions against North Park. Ryan Kuhl is also a frequent Rutter target.
North Central's ground attack is led by Oshayne Brown and Austin Breunig, who are both moving near the top 10 of all-time Cardinals rushers. All-conference offensive lineman Joe Fehrle leads the way up front.
North Central's defense is led by linebackers Justin Stuursma and Tommy Sora and defensive backs Brandon Kibby and Pat Cravens. Kicker Liam Crotty and punter Zane Lodico are strong performers for the Cardinals.
"We have tremendous respect for Wheaton, for their coaching staff and their entire program," Thorne said. "The guys know they will have to come ready to play."