October 16, 2013

LaGrange finds its identity on offense

More news about: LaGrange
Graham Craig leads the nation in passing yards, averaging nearly 390 a game.
LaGrange athletics photo

It took the LaGrange football program several years to find a stable conference. The Panthers have found their home in the USA South. With a first-year offensive coordinator and quarterback, the Panthers have also found their identity. Under new play-caller Matt Mumme, transfer quarterback Graham Craig is leading the nation in passing yards and is second in total offense.

After averaging just 19.6 points per game in 2012, the Panthers have nearly doubled that through five games in 2013. Led by Craig’s 389.6 passing yards per game, LaGrange is averaging 36.4 points per game. The team is just one win away from equaling its win total from a year ago and is 2-1 in conference play.

“I think, as coaches, sometimes we all worry about making changes,” said LaGrange head coach Todd Mooney. “We felt like we needed to jumpstart our offense. The energy has been great.”

Mumme, the son of former McMurry coach Hal Mumme, was the offensive coordinator for the War Hawks when their offense lit up Division III defenses. After spending the last two years at Davidson College, the younger Mumme brought his high-octane offense to LaGrange.

“It is a lot of fun playing at this tempo and throwing it around,” said Craig. “This offense is very fun and we’re getting better each week.”

Five different receivers have at least 15 receptions. Freshman Ervens Oge leads the team with 91.4 receiving yards per game, while Griffin Roelle leads the team with eight touchdown receptions. Marsalis Jackson has six touchdown receptions. Craig has tossed 19 touchdowns, with eight interceptions.

Airing it out

For LaGrange, changing offenses meant a completely different style. The 2013 Panthers surpassed last year's team total passing yards in the third game of the season.
Year G Yds Avg.
2013 5 1953 390.6
2012 10 1093 109.3

“In this offense, you really don’t notice [the big numbers],” said Craig. “My job is to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers. Our wide receivers have done a great job all year of making plays.”

Craig, a junior, transferred this year from Division II Valdosta State University. Growing up in Alabama, he was aware of Division III football, but the programs in his region were just starting up. There are only two Division III schools in Alabama, two in Mississippi, two in Georgia, one in Louisiana, and none in Florida. Most have begun playing football in the past decade. His academic success as a student-athlete kept Division III on his mind, even after he committed to a bigger football program.

“I had good grades in high school,” said Craig. “Division III schools are all really strong academically. The LaGrange program was just getting started when I was in high school, but it was one of the first programs I contacted when I decided to transfer.”

The timing could not have been better. The Panthers needed an offensive coordinator and Mumme took the job in February. Craig joined the program in August.

“It was one of those right place, right time things,” said Mooney.

The trio -- head coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterback -- clicked right away. Together, they are leading a young squad. There are several freshmen playing important roles in the offense. They have developed along with their junior quarterback.

“I hit it off really well with Coach Mooney and Coach Mumme,” said Craig. “The offense was not too hard to pick up. We took it slow in camp, which helped us pick it up.”

Craig played in a similar offense at Valdosta State, although not quite at the tempo that Mumme prefers. The transition has been seamless. Mooney saw Craig quarterbacking a similar style at Valdosta State and knew what he was getting in his new signal-caller.

“When you see a college football player on film, you get a pretty good evaluation on tape,” said Mooney. “We are able to see how Graham would fit into our system.”

There is only one opponent that has been on LaGrange’s schedule in each of its eight seasons. The Panthers have defeated Huntingdon just once, in 2008. The two teams endured years of independence, but now find themselves as conference foes for the first time since 2008. That year, the two southern programs joined the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference as football-only members. The SLIAC decided that it would not sponsor football the following year, and the Panthers and Hawks soon found themselves as conference vagabonds again.

“There’s no easy way around it,” said Mooney. “Scheduling as an independent is a nightmare.”

Last year, LaGrange joined the USA South. This year, Huntingdon followed. Joining the conference took more than football into consideration. Shortly after the SLIAC folded, LaGrange began to explore its options. The dean and president of the college looked for the best academic fit that was willing to take on a new member. They also wanted stability after the SLIAC debacle.

“Our president did a lot of hard work to get us in the USA South,” said Mooney. “It is a great fit in a very prestigious conference. When we started the process in 2009, we wanted a conference that would be home for LaGrange and a conference that wouldn’t go away.”

The Panthers went 3-4 in league play in their first season in the USA South, tied for fifth in the eight team league. With the Hawks added as a ninth member, there should be even more parity in the conference this season. LaGrange knocked off eventual conference champion Christopher Newport last season.

“From top to bottom, there are a lot of really good, competitive football programs,” said Mooney. “That is very rewarding for our conference. For us and what we do, we’ve got to be prepared to stand up physically and mentally for all ten games.”

Joining a stable and competitive conference provides many benefits, other than just the opportunity to earn a Pool A playoff berth. Scheduling becomes much easier. Travel is still a challenge for a program that does not have many Division III neighbors, but at least now the Panthers and Hawks know what to expect when making travel plans. One of the biggest benefits is an expanded recruiting base. While it helps that there are very few Division III competitors in the deep south, LaGrange and Huntingdon should benefit from being a constant presence in North Carolina and Virginia for years to come.

“There certainly is an awful lot of talent down in this region,” said Mooney. “In the past, our recruiting focused on Georgia, with Florida, east Tennessee, and Alabama. We’re starting to work our way up. The conference has really helped us start to lay inroads in bigger cities and opening up new territories for us.”

Also attracting a new wave of recruits is the Panthers’ high-flying offense. Mumme’s system is an immediate draw for offensive playmakers. When they see the numbers that newcomers are putting up this year, high school athletes will want to have their hand in LaGrange’s offense.

“It’s been good for everybody and it’s been great for recruiting,” said Mooney. “Matt has created an atmosphere that is exciting. The kids are excited to go to practice each day.”

LaGrange is finding its footing. It will take four wins in its final five games to earn the program’s second winning season, and first since 2008. More importantly, the program has stability with its conference and an identity with its offense. The rest is up to the players.

“We’re writing our traditions right now,” said Craig. “We can look back on the program years from now and say, ‘we helped build that.’”

Notables

Everyone expects Hampden-Sydney to have a potent offense, so it’s little surprise that Holton Walker leads the nation with 154.6 receiving yards per game. What may come as more of a surprise is the Tigers’ defense, which is tied for fourth in the nation, allowing just 215.4 yards per game. The Tigers are getting it done in all phases, as special teams keyed the 28-7 win over ODAC rival Bridgewater.

Emory and Henry finds itself in a familiar hole, in danger of dropping its first three ODAC games of the season. Washington and Lee held on for a 21-17 win over the Wasps.

Guilford lit up Shenandoah’s defense, led by quarterback Matt Pawlowski’s 26-31, 360-yard, six-touchdown, zero-interception day. Adam Smith caught four passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the 56-29 rout.

Joining Hampden-Sydney and Guilford atop the ODAC is Randolph-Macon. The Yellow Jackets have won four straight games, and the season-opening loss to No. 15 Johns Hopkins looks better every time the Blue Jays dominate another opponent. Will McGhee has rushed for 357 yards in Randolph-Macon’s two ODAC victories, and currently ranks eighth in the nation in total rushing yards.

Shenandoah, at 2-3, is the only ODAC team with an overall losing record at the season’s midway points. As Keith has coined in his Around the Nation posts and in the weekly Around the Nation podcast, the ODAC keeps getting ODACier. The conference is so balanced, it has become an adjective.

Maryville held off LaGrange, 47-35, behind 255 passing yards and 108 rushing yards from Evan Pittenger. The Scots are now alone in first place in the USA South -- which is competitive, but has not yet reached adjective status -- at 3-0 in the conference. Huntingdon is 2-0 in its first year as a conference member. The Scots travel to Newport News to take on defending champion Christopher Newport on Saturday night. The Captains’ only loss this season was to Methodist, which has a bye this week.

Wesley faces its last Division III test of the month when it travels to Rowan on Saturday. Newcomer Alfred State is the only other Division III opponent remaining on the Wolverines’ schedule.

The Centennial Conference returns after a league-wide bye week. Ursinus and Johns Hopkins are undefeated and tied at the top. The two teams meet on Nov. 2. Ursinus last started this hot in 2010, when the Bears won their first seven games before dropping two straight on the road. After hosting Juniata this weekend, the Bears close out the season with three of their final four contests on the road. 

A key stat that has Ursinus and Johns Hopkins at a combined 10-0: each team is converting over half of its third downs. Ursinus ranks fifth in the nation at a 0.575 clip, while the Blue Jays are one spot behind at 0.557. Right behind Johns Hopkins is conference foe Gettysburg at 0.556. The Bulletts are 2-2 in league play and 3-2 overall, losing to Ursinus in the conference opener and awaiting Johns Hopkins on October 26.

Franklin and Marshall, 3-2 (3-1), lost to Ursinus on Sept. 21, but will still have something to say about the Centennial finish. The Diplomats close the season at Johns Hopkins and at home against Gettysburg. Muhlenberg, Dickinson, and Juniata -- each 2-2 in the conference -- could easily expand what is shaping up to be a four-team race.

 

What Did I Miss? Do you know about any upcoming milestones, big games or new names in the Mid-Atlantic? Please share them with me. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com.



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