The Bethany College football team will be trying to do something no other conference school has done since 2007 when the Bison travel to Kentucky to try to upset #8 Thomas More. Saturday's kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at The Bank of Kentucky Field.
On offense, Bethany put all 20 points on the scoreboard in the second quarter. Sophomore quarterback Matt Grimard threw for 171 yards and two touchdowns covering three yards to junior linebacker and goal-line fullback Gage Lotozo and eight yards to junior WR Ed Holmes. The final score came on a one-yard scamper by sophomore RB Nico Irizarry.
Capping the complete win was the play of the special teams, as freshman punter Stephen Amic earned the conference's Special Teams Player of the Week after averaging 45.6 yards per punt and hammering a league-long 65-yarder. In addition, the kickoff coverage team forced a Thiel fumble following the first BC score that led to the second touchdown of the game.
"Saturday was a good win," said Bison head Tim Weaver. "It was good to bounce back and not go in the tank after two tough losses. Also, it was big because we picked up the offense, which didn't have a great game. We made big plays on special teams all day and shut out a college football team, which is very hard to do. We've had to outscore people in the past for wins, but the defense stepped up. We gave up some yards, but didn't panic and made plays, especially in the second half.
"A lot of credit for our offense's tough day goes to Thiel because they are doing a good job with their defense," said Weaver. "Even though we weren't executing at our highest level Saturday, we made enough plays to win the game."
The Bison had a change at running back going into Saturday, as senior Eric Walker, who is just 108 yards away from breaking the school's career rushing record, was forced to sit out the first game of his career due to injury. Stepping up in his place was Irizarry, who finished his first career start with 117 rushing yards and one TD on 22 carries and added five receptions for 57 yards. The second-year back brings a much different look to the backfield than Walker, but the results were similar.
"Nico has better feet in the hole than Eric does," said Weaver. "He is more of a make-you-miss than break tackles back. Eric is hard to tackle because he is so strong and powerful, while Nico relies on his feet to start-and-stop. We are trying to get him to a point where he runs through more tackles. But I thought Bill (Garvey, BC offensive coordinator) did a good job designing different plays. We ran draws for the first time in a while and we tried to spread out the defense more to get the ball to Nico in space."
The injury to Walker leaves his status uncertain for the coming weeks and although Bethany has suffered a greater amount of injuries during Weaver's tenure, they have been hit hard this year in the defensive secondary. Sophomore cornerback Raphael McGee went down for the year after two games and junior Jeff Joyce was forced to sit out last week's win due to injury, but is expected back this Saturday.
In their place, BC have had underclassmen step up in freshman Wyssmy Despagne, who picked off his first career pass last week, sophomore Michael Howcott, who had five tackles and a pass break-up, and freshman Demetrius Wellington, who made nine tackles. The depth the Bison have been able to accrue with recent recruiting classes have made it easier when the injury big bites.
"Injuries are a part of college football and especially when you get to week seven and eight of the season," said Weaver. "But when it hits your leading rusher and both starting cornerbacks, it's a different animal to overcome. The coaches in this league are good and smart and will come after you. We couldn't have done what we did Saturday two years ago. Nico played a lot last year and when Eric goes down, he steps right in. Wyssmy was rock solid Saturday and Thiel went after him, but he made plays. Howcott made his first career start and broke up a third down pass and played very well.
"Because we've had some very good recruiting classes, our depth is much better, although we are still a year away from that depth not being freshmen," said Weaver. "We haven't had a ton of injuries, but when they clump up like they have in the secondary it can be a challenge. Guys like Wyssmy and Demetrius have been forced to step up and they are delivering. We think their upside is tremendous, their confidence is high and they love to play. In addition to Nico on offense, (wide receiver) Marcus (D'Aguiar) has been severely limited by injuries this year, but we plugged in (sophomore) Daryl Powell and he's done well and shown why we think he has a big future."
Everyone on the roster will have to raise their game to meet the challenge of taking on Thomas More, who is ranked sixth in this week's AFCA Top 25 poll and eighth in the D3Football.com poll. The Saints (6-0, 5-0) were pushed to the brink last week at Saint Vincent, but a final Bearcat drive only reached the TMC 32 and Thomas More held on for a 20-17 victory. The Saints, who have won 24 straight PAC games dating back to 2007, were outgained 361-278, but used four Saint Vincent turnovers and some big plays, including a 68-yard touchdown run by Adam Rauch, to come away with the victory.
The main concern for the Bison this week will be slowing down Thomas More's top-ranked rushing offense. Bethany has allowed 225.7 rushing yards over the last three games and will have to contend with a deep backfield consisting of Domonique Haydon (323 yards, 10 TDs), Kendall Owens ( 206 yards, 2 TDs), Landon Savoy (180 yards) and Rauch (150 yards).
The Saints can also burn teams in the passing game, as quarterback Robert Kues has completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,216 yards, 14 touchdowns and only one interception. Owens (24 rec., 228 yds., 3 TDs) and Haydon (21 rec., 262 yds., 3 TDs) are the top targets for Kues, who engineers the top scoring offense in the PAC with 37.8 points per game.
"Thomas More's offense is not only filled with talent, but they are schematically different than anyone in the league because they are the only option team," said Weaver. "You know as a coach you can't have 10 answers, and you want to find one or two. So we pound the film into the players so they have a better idea of what's coming because you can't duplicate their offense in practice.
"Even if you design a way to take away a part of their attack, they are very good at adjusting and attacking a new way," said Weaver. "They are so deep with backs in Haydon, Rauch and Owens and they understand their roles in the offense. We will need to keep our feet, because they are very good low blockers, and have all 11 guys fly to the football."
The Saints defense is as stingy as the offense is efficient. Thomas More is tops in the league in points allowed (13.7), rushing defense (103.8) and turnover margin (+10).The Saints secondary is filled with playmakers, led by safety Alex Taylor with 42 tackles, three interceptions and five other break-ups. The cornerbacks Antonio Booker (28 tackles) and Jake Fishburn (25 stops) have also combined for five pass break-ups, while safeties Shaquille Jinks (24 tackles) and Zach Autenrieb (23) have both broken up six passes.
"You have to be patient against their defense," said Weaver. "Saint Vincent did a good job moving the chains and holding into the football. Thomas More brings so much pressure and doesn't give you a thing. Teams like W&J and Saint Vincent just had people make plays, whether it was break a tackle or make a great catch. When someone has success, it's not because Thomas More is vulnerable, it's because the other team is executing.
"And for us, it will come down to executing and competing in one-on-one situations," said Weaver. "We will need to be balanced and not be predictable with our runs and passes. We also need to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers as quickly as we can so we don't ask the line to protect for a long time because Thomas More won't let you do that."
This is the seventh all-time meeting between the schools, with the Saints holding a 4-2 series advantage. Thomas More has won three straight from the Bison, including a 48-14 victory last fall. Bethany's last win over TMC was a 35-14 verdict in 2007 and in 2006, BC prevailed by a 21-17 score on the Saints' home field.