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Watch now: Illinois Wesleyan defense taking a step up ahead of facing No. 1 North Central

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FB: IWU vs Millikin

Illinois Wesleyan defensive end Nick DiGregorio rushed the passer during last Saturday's 14-0 victory against Millikin at Tucci Stadium. The Titans travel to face No. 1-ranked North Central on Saturday in Naperville. (JIMMY NAPRSTEK PHOTO/KODIAK CREATIVE)

BLOOMINGTON — Posting a shutout against a Millikin offense that was averaging 28.7 points beforehand gave Illinois Wesleyan's defense a needed boost last Saturday.

"We have guys who are playing with high energy," said IWU senior defensive end Nick DiGregorio. "They're focused and the main thing we've been telling everyone all week is believe."

DiGregorio is confident the defense can keep believing — even if that means going up against an offense that is seemingly unstoppable.

IWU (2-4 overall, 2-3 CCIW) travels to face top-ranked North Central (6-0, 5-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Naperville. The Titans have never played against a D3football.com No. 1 team since the poll began in 2003.

North Central ranks first among NCAA Division III teams in scoring offense (57.5 points per game) and second in total offense (588.2 yards). Freshman quarterback Luke Lehnen is the Division III leader in yards per pass attempt (12.3) and second in yards per completion (18.41).

The Cardinals pasted Elmhurst, 77-7, last Saturday, with seven of their 11 drives consisting of three plays or less.

DiGregorio is unconcerned about any of that.

"The key is to focus on us. All year we've beat ourselves. It's not the offense doing something specifically we can't stop," said DiGregorio. "It's  us 11 not being in the right position to make the play at the right time."

IWU head coach Norm Eash knows what it is like to beat a high-ranked team. The Titans opened the 2017 season with a 17-10 victory over No. 3 Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Eash had a simple message for the Titans at the start of practice this week.

"I told our players I was going to mention this to them one time and one time only — they're the No. 1 ranked team in the country, but the No. 1 ranking doesn't guarantee them a win every week," he said. "They have to go out and play."

After giving up at least 34 points in four of its first five games, the Titan defense buckled up against Millikin to shut out the Big Blue for the first time since 2008.

IWU allowed Millikin 324 yards of total offense in a 14-0 victory at Tucci Stadium. 

After juggling players in and out of the defensive lineup, the Titans have settled on a starting unit that includes four freshmen. This week IWU also will be getting back senior linebacker Fernando Chavez, who has missed the last two games with an elbow injury.

"If we collectively play together and play exactly how we're coached to play everything will go great," said DiGregorio, who ranks second on the team with 38 tackles. "But if someone gets out of position or misses a call or an assignment, that's when you see big plays happen. That's the key to this week. Play every play like it's our last and don't let up that big play."

Eash said the IWU offense can help its defense by keeping the ball away from North Central and converting on opportunities in the red zone. IWU held the ball against Millikin for almost 34 minutes, but scored only twice in the second quarter.

"We have total trust in our defense. If they play like they did last week, we believe we can beat anyone," said IWU senior center Jake Buhe. "If they (North Central) play like they should and we play like we know we can, we're more than capable of beating anyone in the country."

Playing a night game for the first time since 2019 at Wheaton just adds a little more adrenaline for the Titans.

"It's exciting to play under the lights again and be back in the Chicago area," said DiGregorio, a graduate of Lincoln-Way Central High School. "I know we'll have a huge presence of Illinois Wesleyan fans in the crowd and it will be cool to have family members and people who wouldn't be able to come to the game (in Bloomington) be able to come out and watch us play."

Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_benson

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