|Max Garrett and the Generals defense have been locked in, while the offense has overcome major injuries.
Photo by Pete Emerson
By Andrew Lovell
As the regular season winds down to its conclusion this weekend, Washington and Lee finds itself in the most enviable of driver's seats. The Generals control their own playoff destiny.
A win Saturday against Shenandoah would clinch the program's third ODAC conference title and NCAA playoff berth since 2012, the first year under head coach Scott Abell. A loss would, well, complicate things. In fact, wins by Shenandoah over Washington and Lee, and Randolph-Macon over Hampden-Sydney would put all four teams atop the ODAC with identical 4-2 records.
Washington and Lee's goal will be to avoid that headache. The 2017 season has been complicated enough for the Generals.
"I'm not surprised we're here," Abell said. "I'm maybe surprised how we got here."
The Generals' path has indeed been unlikely, complete with a early-season gut-check conference loss, two critical injuries, and the emergence of young players at the team's most important positions. The Generals (7-2, 4-1) have survived it all with a chance to finish the regular season on a six-game winning streak.
"It's a top-to-bottom overall effort," senior linebacker Max Garrett said. "Guys who weren't necessarily playing right away were still watching film, giving it their all in practice, giving great looks on the scout team. Those guys are a reflection of how, from top to bottom, how our focus has been throughout the entire team."
After going 2-1 in non-conference play to open the season, Washington and Lee dropped its ODAC opener to Emory and Henry, a team it had defeated by 36 and 28 points in 2016 and 2015, respectively. The Wasps scored the game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds left in regulation, but the loss of the game was compounded by the loss of senior running back Walker Brand to a horrific knee injury.
Brand, a captain and one of the team's core leaders, sustained major damage to multiple ligaments and his meniscus in what Abell called the worst knee injury he'd ever seen. In the following game, a 28-21 win over Washington U., senior quarterback and captain Matt Sgro suffered a serious foot sprain. Sgro would return three games later against Randolph-Macon, but last only three plays before re-injuring the same foot.
Every team would struggle if it lost its top running back and quarterback in successive weeks, but that's especially true for Washington and Lee, given the team's intricate spread offense.
"We had nobody on the roster who had taken a snap in a game as a quarterback but Matt coming into this year," Abell said.
Inside reads, outside reads, speed options, triple options, double options -- you name it and the Generals run it on offense. It hasn't traditionally been an easy system for young quarterbacks to pick up right away. Sophomore Drew Richardson and freshman Trey Laughlin have done their best to disprove that theory.
Since losing Sgro in early October, the Generals have won five straight by an average margin of 17.8 points per game. Collectively, Richardson and Laughlin have rushed for 445 yards and three touchdowns, but it's been their command of the offense that's impressed Abell.
"I've been, at times, overwhelmed about how well they've done, to be honest," Abell said. "I've been here now 10 years, and I know how tough it is for our young quarterbacks."
Another freshman, running back Josh Breece, has emerged as the Generals' workhorse in Brand's stead. Prior to Brand's injury, the 5-foot-7, 170-pound Breece had been seeing 10-12 touches per game. That total has skyrocketed since Brand's injury, and so too has Breece's production. His 1,376 rushing yards rank eighth overall in Division III, while his 15 rushing touchdowns are tied for 13th. He's paired with junior Collin Sherman (578 yards, seven TDs), who moved from slot back to his original running back position after Brand's injury, to give the Generals a potent one-two punch.
Breece, a decorated multi-sport athlete in high school who drew Ivy League interest, arrived as a high-profile recruit for Washington and Lee, but has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations as a first-year player.
"What a win for us," Abell said. "He gives us a threat back here that I'm not sure we've really had. It's a different speed than what people have been used to defending us."
The performances of players like Richardson, Laughlin, Breece, and sophomore safety Davis Waldrop, who started three key conference games in place of injured junior standout Thomas Freeland, indicate the deepest quality of depth across the roster in Abell's six-year tenure as head coach.
"Our roster is no bigger, but the depth of our roster is much greater," Abell said.
|An All-Region selection in 2016, Garrett could earn even more postseason prestige following his senior season.
Photo by Keith Lucas
The defensive line, which only two seasons ago topped out at about 220 pounds, now has multiple players weighing in the 240-250 range. The back seven includes linebacker/safety David Hogan, linebacker/safety Dominic Volpe, free safety Michael Shields, cornerback Grey Reames, and Garrett, all seniors with 30-plus career starts under their belts.
For the first time under Abell, the Generals are leading the ODAC in sacks and time of possession, two trends Abell attributes to the improved, Garrett-led defense.
"If he's not an All-American linebacker, there's not one out there," Abell said of Garrett.
Brand and Sgro, whose mentoring and guidance have been instrumental in the success of their younger contemporaries, remain an active presence during practice and on the sideline for games. They are two of 14 seniors, many of whom have experienced everything college football can throw at them: a two-win rebuilding season in 2014, an unexpected and unprecedented perfect regular season in 2015, a disappointing 6-4 follow-up season in 2016, and now, potentially, another conference title in 2017.
"That roller coaster of seasons that a lot of these four-year starters have gone through, I do think it gives us perspective," Garrett said. "We've been in the trenches and we've been through bad seasons, and we could tell this team was way too talented to ever lay down."
"I hope that our seniors' legacy is one that just leaves a foundation for the start of something special," Garrett added. "I hope that we never have to have a 2-8 year again and that we'll always be competing for a title."
The Generals have grown up fast this season. That bodes well not only for Saturday's regular-season finale, but the seasons to come.
Huntingdon clinches USA South, NCAA bid
Chip Taylor passed for 237 yards and two touchdowns on just eight completions, and Eric Thomas rushed for 161 yards and one of Huntingdon's six rushing touchdowns as the Hawks piled up 37 first downs en route to a dominating 55-7 win over Methodist.
The win clinched a third straight USA South conference title and NCAA postseason berth for Huntingdon (8-1, 6-0).
"We're blessed. We still have work to do, but what this team has accomplished this year is pretty awesome," head coach Mike Turk told the school's athletics website. "If you think about where we started from and where we've been able to get to, this team has probably improved as much or more than any team I have ever been a part of."
The Hawks earned their first-ever playoff win in 2015 with a first-round defeat of Hendrix before falling to Mary Hardin-Baylor. Last season's playoff run ended with a first-round loss to Wheaton.
Huntingdon figures to enter the 2017 postseason as hot as any team in the country. After a season-opening loss to Guilford, Huntingdon has rattled off eight straight wins. The Hawks close the regular season this Saturday at LaGrange (4-5, 3-3).
Centennial down to Johns Hopkins, Franklin and Marshall
It's no surprise to see Johns Hopkins (8-1, 7-1) atop the Centennial Conference standings as the regular season draws to a close. It is, however, a bit surprising to see Franklin Marshall (8-1, 7-1) there as well.
Johns Hopkins routed Juniata 57-14 behind David Tammaro (264 passing yards, four TDs) for its fourth straight win since a Sept. 30 loss to Ursinus. Tanner Erisman (233 passing yards, two TDs) and Taalib Gerald (153 rushing yards, two TDs) helped Franklin and Marshall keep pace with a 42-28 win over Ursinus.
The problem for Franklin and Marshall, of course, is that Hopkins owns the tiebreaker, due to its 45-7 head-to-head win in early October. If Hopkins defeats McDaniel (3-6, 2-6) on Saturday, it's guaranteed an NCAA playoff berth and at least a share of its ninth straight CC title. If Hopkins loses and Franklin and Marshall defeats Gettysburg (3-6, 3-5), the Diplomats will earn the conference crown and accompanying playoff bid.
Alec Cobb passed for 365 yards and five touchdowns, Cam Johnson caught 13 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns, and Mike DeMasi rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown in Hampden-Sydney's 49-43 shootout win against Shenandoah. Hayden Bauserman passed for 401 yards and six touchdowns in the loss. ... Michael Hnatkowsky passed for 343 yards and four touchdowns, including two to Josiah Wright, as Muhlenberg routed Gettysburg 39-14. ... Brian Mann rushed for 208 yards and five touchdowns, and Kwajay Witcher intercepted a pair of passes in Ferrum's 52-13 victory against Greensboro. ... Tre Frederick rushed for 199 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Burke Estes tossed two TDs in Randolph-Macon's 38-22 win against Guilford. Karsten Miller passed for 405 yards and two scores in the defeat. ... Cameron Ott ran for 138 yards and three touchdowns, including two in the fourth quarter, to clinch Susquehanna's 33-10 win over McDaniel. ... Sean Bowman scored three touchdowns on the ground, Victor Miller recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, and Dejon Brooks finished with 13 tackles, three sacks and an interception in Averett's 41-17 win against Brevard. ... Doug Erney passed for 290 yards and three touchdowns, and Eli Redmond rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown as Moravian defeated Dickinson 35-18. ... Isaiah Rodgers rushed for 143 yards and two TDs as Emory and Henry snapped a four-game losing skid with a 37-14 win over Apprentice. ... Elijah Hairston and Caine Adamson rushed for two touchdowns apiece in Maryville's 35-23 win over LaGrange. Connor Blair passed for 326 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
Top 25: Johns Hopkins moves up
Johns Hopkins climbed two spots to No. 21 in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll.
Huntingdon and Franklin and Marshall also received votes.
I'm always happy to hear from you, whether it’s questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me by email at email@example.com and follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell).