New look for CWRU, but strong results

More news about: Case Western Reserve
Even quarterback Rob Cuda gets in on the ground attack, averaging a career-high 74 yards rushing per game.
Case athletics photo by Leah Klafczynski

Case Western Reserve is right where it wants to be at this point in the season – unbeaten and tied atop the PAC standings with Thomas More.

But, the Spartans didn’t get there exactly the way they thought they would.

Buoyed by the emergence of quarterback Rob Cuda, Case Western Reserve’s offense came alive last season. The team ranked 29th in the nation in scoring at 38.7 points per game and 32nd in yardage (468.4). The squad challenged for a PAC title as well, but dropped a 36-32 nail-biter to Thomas More on Nov. 7 and suffered a 52-42 setback to Carnegie Mellon the next week to finish 6-2 in the loop.

With Cuda entering his junior year and some experienced players around him, the Spartans hoped to take their offense to a new level. So far, they have – just in a different way.

Two of Cuda’s top targets (senior tight end Zech Medved and junior receiver Luke DiFrancesco) were lost for the year with injuries during training camp. A third – sophomore receiver Joey Spitalli – broke a hand in the team’s opener.

That changed the team’s pass-heavy approach in a hurry.

“We’re different than I thought we’d be,” CWRU coach Greg Debeljak said. “We expected to be throwing the ball all over the place this year.”

The squad looked to its rushing attack to help take the burden off the short-handed passing game. Junior fullback Jacob Burke, who carried the ball only nine times last year, has helped power a ground game that ranks second in the PAC at 267.3 yards per outing. Burke ranks fourth in the conference with 686 yards. Cuda, also a standout runner, ranks 10th with 444 yards. He led the team last year with 715 yards. Jeffrie Brown, Jr. (161 yards), Aaron Aguilar (123) and Myles Anthony (91) have seen carries as well.

It’s not like CWRU has abandoned the forward pass, either. Cuda and the aerial attack are going strong at 246.2 yards per game, which has given the squad more balance.

“Those injuries just changed us. It forced us to get our backs more involved. We’re different but still effective,” Debeljak said. “It’s a commitment to being a little more patient with the run game, knowing that we have we a good defense and, if we punt the ball, it’s not the end of the world. Our line is really adept to inside running. Eventually, we’ll pop a long run. We’ve had more long runs this year than in a long time from basically a fullback position. The threat of Rob being able to throw and run, it leaves lanes open for them.”

If the offensive injuries weren’t tough enough to overcome, Case Western Reserve starting safeties Cody Calhoun and John McKelvey were knocked out of service in the first game as well. McKelvey could return to action later in the season. Those two were perceived to be the strong point of a unit that graduated seven starters. Nevertheless, the Spartans lead the PAC in total defense at 269.3 yards allowed per outing.

“On defense, we’re very different than we imagined going into the year. I am very pleased,” Debeljak said.

While CWRU has excelled on both sides of the ball, it took some work to make the players believe they could rebuild on the go.

“As a coaching staff, we had to tell them that we are not a better team without the guys we lost. But, we can still be good if they buy in. I give a lot of credit to our coaches because it was s sell job. We really had to convince the team we are still a good team despite playing without all those starters,” Debeljak said. “Guys that were role players who were prepared to play have just performed remarkably. Beating Chicago in the first game was huge. They are a really good team. That win gave guys a lot of confidence. Winning leads to winning. I know the kids know we have some tough games to play down the road, but we’ve overcome so much already we feel we’re prepared for anything the season can throw at us.”

Game of the Week

John Carroll 20, Ohio Northern 16 – The Blue Streaks scored early in the fourth quarter and their defense clamped down on the Polar Bears. It forced turnovers on Ohio Northern’s final three possessions. The win kept John Carroll tied with Mount Union atop the OAC standings at 5-0.

In the polls

No. 1 Mount Union (6-0) shut out Capital, 45-0. The Purple Raiders welcome Wilmington on Saturday.

No. 13 Thomas More (6-1) moved up a spot after its 40-7 win at Waynesburg. The Saints get back on the bus for another long trip when they visit St. Vincent on Saturday.

No. 20 Wabash (5-1) dropped a place after a 24-3 win at Kenyon.  The Little Giants welcome Wooster on Saturday.

No. 23 John Carroll (5-1) held off Ohio Northern for a key OAC win. The Blue Streaks meet Capital on Saturday.

No. 24 Denison (6-0) broke into the Top 25 following its huge 24-21 win over Wittenberg to gain control atop the NCAC standings. 

Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

2012-14 columnist: Brian Lester
2011 columnist: Dean Jackson
2007-10 columnist: Matt Florjancic

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