|Freshman quarterback Drew Saxton has never faced Washington & Jefferson. Then again, neither has his teammates who are sophomores and juniors.
Case Western Reserve athletics photo by Naji Saker
By Joe Sager
It’s been nearly three years since they faced each other on the football field, but Case Western Reserve and Washington & Jefferson are pretty familiar with each other.
The programs have been among the PAC’s elite, but didn’t actually meet on the gridiron the past two seasons due to the PAC’s unbalanced schedule. So, Saturday’s clash in Washington, Pennsylvania, is the squads’ first encounter since CWRU posted a 35-28 home win on Oct. 24, 2015.
“That was an interesting two-year stretch,” CWRU coach Greg Debeljak said. “We went 19-1 and they went 18-2 during the regular season those two years. We were both 10-0 last year and I am glad that is not going to happen again. It’ll be nice to decide it out on the field.”
Last year, both squads went 8-0 in PAC play and shared the championship. The league’s tiebreaker (strength of conference victories) gave the Presidents the PAC’s automatic bid to the playoffs, while the Spartans earned an at-large berth. They hoped for a showdown in the postseason, but the head-to-head matchup did not materialize.
They are two of the PAC favorites this year, too, and enter the game unbeaten – W&J is 5-0 overall and 4-0 in the PAC, while CWRU is 4-0, 3-0.
“It’s a pretty big game. It has big implications for our conference and both our seasons,” CWRU senior receiver Justin Phan said. “Everyone knows it’s a big game. That’s no secret. The big thing is no one is going to try to do too much and get out of their comfort zone. We’ll prepare the same way we’ve always prepared and get ready for the game the same way we normally would.”
Still, it’s W&J and CWRU, so it’s tough for the players not to get a little more fired up.
“It’s always exciting to have a good opponent lined up across from you, like we had with Westminster last week,” Phan said. “Those games mean a little more.”
After opening the season with three decisive wins, last week’s 35-14 triumph at Westminster was the Spartans’ toughest test to date. Debeljak is happy with the progress he has seen.
“Going into the year, we were just kind of worried about ourselves and the 26 seniors we replaced who had played so much football over the years,” he said. “We thought we had some talented kids, but they just hadn’t been out there in games. We found out a lot over the last four weeks. I think their confidence is built up every week.
“The Westminster win was a big win; they really responded well against Westminster, which is an excellent team. We faced some adversity – it was homecoming and a night game and we fell behind – but I am glad all those things worked out and we can use those as we go into this next game on the road in a tough environment to play. This is the next step. We’re really looking forward to getting out there and playing against them. We’re very excited.”
One big void CWRU faced coming into this year was at quarterback with the graduation of Rob Cuda, the PAC’s offensive player of the year. Freshman Drew Saxton has picked up where Cuda left off, however.
“We couldn’t predict how well our quarterback would play. My goodness – we knew we had a good one, but we didn’t know how good he was. ... Just throwing the football, I think everyone recognized he was pretty special.”
– Case coach Greg Debeljak on Drew Saxton
“We couldn’t predict how well our quarterback would play. My goodness – we knew we had a good one, but we didn’t know how good he was. Some things were answered in those first four weeks and that was the main one,” Debeljak said. “Just throwing the football, I think everyone recognized he was pretty special. He has definitely improved on running our no-huddle offense and directing that and going more up tempo, when needed. We weren’t running it as smoothly in camp and during the preseason.
“Drew is smart and very easily coached. Once he makes a mistake and it’s corrected, it’s corrected. It’s been a great growing process. It’s not like we’re easing him in – he is doing it. He is probably the No. 1 reason we are good on offense. That’s unusual, too. When you have a freshman, usually you have to tone things down and make sure you have a strong running game to take off the pressure. We do have a good running game, but it’s because of the threat of him passing that we’re doing so well with the rushing game. I couldn’t be happier with how he has performed.”
Presidents quarterback Jacob Adams and Saxton are neck and neck in the PAC quarterback statistics. Saxton leads the PAC in passing yards per game (295.8) and completion percentage (70.5).
“The PAC is a great league and, all around, there are a lot of good quarterbacks who can throw it,” Saxton said. “I know what I can do and I know the guys around me can make plays. It’s nice to throw a 5-yard out and have a guy take it 45 yards for a score.”
Coming from a similar offense in high school, where he passed for 7,452 yards in his career, Saxton has benefited from working with CWRU quarterbacks coach Kevin Burke, a two-time Gagliardi Trophy winner at Mount Union.
“It helps that I was in a similar system in high school – that’s one of the major reasons I’ve been able to have success so early,” Saxton said. “Working with our coaching staff and all the other quarterbacks helps a lot. Coach Burke has been a big help. He really knows a lot of things and sees things that I will only see after the fact. Knowing his success and what he has achieved, it’s very helpful to have him next to me and talking to me every day. We have a lot of great football players who know what they are doing and that’s helped, too.”
The transition to a new quarterback has been an easy one for the Spartans.
“We really didn’t skip a beat. The transition is always a little awkward, at first. But, we took care of that in camp and the receivers made sure we all got on the same page and got in some extra reps,” Phan said. “As soon as Drew stepped onto the field we all knew he could play. It was just a matter of getting him there, mentally. We knew he could throw the ball. He has done a good job stepping into the role as commander of the offense and being a leader as well.”
Saxton looks forward to his first game at W&J, which is about a 25-minute drive from where he grew up.
“It’s definitely exciting. It’ll be two great teams going at it. I know a few guys on that team from high school, so it’ll be interesting,” he said. “It should be a great game with the history the two teams have had. I know Coach (Mike) Sirianni and he is going to have his team ready. I am looking forward to it.”