After taking its bye week to get healthy and recharge for the final run of the regular season, the Bethany College football team will welcome Grove City to Bison Stadium Saturday for a PAC clash. Kickoff is slated for 1:30 p.m.
The Bison (3-4, 2-4) were off last week and have not been on the field since Oct. 22, when six big plays lifted sixth-ranked Thomas More to a 41-21 victory over BC in Kentucky. Bethany outgained the Saints 398-366 and doubled up TMC in first downs 22-11, but all six of Thomas More's scores came on plays of 38 yards or more.
Having the bye week come after the loss to a ranked opponent, as well as so late in the season, gave Bethany a chance to regroup and get focused on closing the campaign on a high note.
"Having the bye so late in the year is a lot different than having it in week two or three like a lot of teams," said Bison head coach Tim Weaver. "We gave the players a couple days off early in the week, then started working on ourselves. We gave the younger players a chance to work on schemes and to play in front of the coaching staff to see what they could do. Late in the week had more of a spring practice mentality and we spent on day prepping for Grove City, then one day prepping for Saint Vincent.
"This also gave us a chance to get our injured guys a chance to heal," said Weaver. "While we've had some key injuries, we don't have as many guys nicked up as we have in the past. But it's still good to give everyone a chance to heal up."
In the loss to Thomas More, Bison sophomore quarterback Matt Grimard completed 33 passes, the second-most in Bethany single-game history, for a career-high 312 yards and three touchdowns. As a freshman, Grimard was more of a running quarterback, gaining 882 yards on the ground, a BC-record for a signal caller. Through the air, he completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,490 yards and 10 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions.
One year has made quite a difference, as Grimard is connecting on 60 percent of his aerials for 1,648 yards and 13 scores with just seven interceptions. While Weaver said the sophomore still has a little ways to go, he is pleased with where his second-year QB is at this stage of his development.
"Matt has developed a lot as a passer," said Weaver. "We have opened the play book significantly. He's still not where we want him to be, but he is making good reads and continues to get better. His improvement in the passing game has allowed us to ask him to run less and not take unnecessary shots. Even looking at his interceptions at Thomas More, the one returned for a touchdown was more of a great play made by a great player than a mistake by Matt."
The one place where Bethany has been hit by injuries is the defensive secondary, but all the players who have seen time back there have stepped up their play. Sophomore safeties Jamaan Webb and Jordan Joyce rank second and fourth, respectively, on the team in tackles with 52 and 33 and have a combined 10 passes defended.
In addition, junior cornerback Jeff Joyce, who is in his second year at the position, has 25 tackles and two interceptions and freshmen Wyssmy Despgane and Demetrius Wellington have been key contributors.
The group may be young in experience but they have continued to jell as a unit, although Weaver wants to see improvement from them in the running game.
"Coaches can fall in the trap of thinking if a guy plays one year, they are a wily veteran but they are still learning," said Weaver. "The play in the secondary has been good. We've given up far, far fewer deep throws than we have in years past. You don't want guys to get hurt but the injury to Raphael McGee early in the year may prove to be a blessing. Not in 2011, but for next year, because it gave guys like Wyssmy and Demetrius, who have potential to develop into all-conference players, a chance to get on the field and gain experience.
"I do think we can get better defending the perimeter run," said Weaver. "We were exposed against Westminster and when you give up 300 yards, people think you were pushed off the ball. But our problem in that game was more on the linebackers and defensive backs not getting off blocks. We did a much better job against Thomas More. Even though you look at the numbers and see we gave up 217, but over 100 of that came on three plays. We just need to see it more and we'll continue to get better."
This week's opponent has continued to get better through the year and after starting the campaign 0-6, Grove City has posted two straight wins over Saint Vincent (21-16) and Washington & Jefferson (24-21). Last week, the Wolverines fell behind W&J 21-0 in the first quarter before rallying with 24 unanswered points to post their first win over the Presidents since 1998. Quarterback Brian Pell threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns to four different receivers, with Blaine Miller (eight receptions, 96 yards, 1 TD) and Anthony Ritchie (five receptions, 92 yards, 1 TD) being his top targets.
The 0-6 start by Grove City was deceiving, as three of the defeats came by six points or less. The difference between the six losses and two wins is miniscule, according to Weaver, which the same can be said for the seven teams jumbled in the middle of the conference with records ranging from 4-2 to 2-4.
"There isn't a lot of difference between the Grove City team from the start of the year to the last two weeks," said Weaver. "The difference is just four or five plays a game they weren't making early in the season they have made the last two (games). We could say the same thing, that if we get two or three plays back from Westminster or Waynesburg or Thomas More, we could be at 5-1 in the league and they could say the same thing. There is the old coaches' cliché about your opponent being the best 2-6 team out there and that's true in this case because they are very good."
On offense, the Wolverines are engineered by the sophomore Pell, who threw for 193 yards and two TDs in a 21-7 Grove City win over Bethany last year. This season, he has thrown for 970 yards and seven touchdowns. The GCC running attack is paced by Miller, who has gained 408 yards and scored nine touchdowns. He is also the second-leading receiver with 32 catches for the year for 307 yards and two scores. Ritchie is the top target with 35 grabs for 412 yards and four TDs. But Pell is the main threat the Bison will be worried about Saturday.
"Pell has developed into a really good player," said Weaver. "He got hot and was very, very good against W&J. He is a good enough runner that you have to keep track of him in the pocket, but he also throws a really good deep ball, which makes them dangerous because they can hit for a big play at any time. They throw a lot of jump balls to Ritchie, who bodies people up and makes plays. Their running game is clicking again, which opens up the play action. They got behind W&J twice last week for touchdowns on play action, so it's definitely a concern."
The Grove City defense has been an opportunistic unit lately, forcing seven turnovers in the last two games. The top tackler is cornerback Chris Gibbs with 63 stops, while the main pass rusher is linebacker Ryan Althausen with 5.5 sacks. Other key players for the Bison to contend with include cornerback Kurt Devlin with 33 stops and a team-best three interceptions, which all came in the Saint Vincent victory, and nose tackle Jarred Frawley, who Weaver says is part of a formidable front line.
"Grove City is what you'd expect them to be defensively," said Weaver. "They are very disciplined and great tacklers. Nothing jumps off the film at you and makes you think you can beat them a certain way. Their two defensive tackles are the best in the league, which will be a great challenge for our offensive line. The last couple games, they have taken the ball away. They picked off (Aaron) Smetanka (Saint Vincent QB) four times and forced six fumbles against W&J and recovered three. So they are doing what they need to do to win games."
Looking at the keys to coming away victorious Saturday, Weaver says field position will loom large, so special teams will likely play a big role. He also says his team is prepared for a fight to the finish in every game the rest of the year, beginning with Saturday's tilt against Grove City.
"We want to control the football and finish drives Saturday," said Weaver. "On defense, we have to be able to make plays on third down and limit how many times they throw it up and catch it. Field position will be a key, so we will have to be very good on special teams. Our kick coverage units have to be sharp and we need to try to hit one in our return game to give us a short field at least once.
"We anticipate these last two PAC games will be all-out wars coming down to the final series," said Weaver. "We just have to find a way to be the team that makes the play to win the game."