By Pat Coleman
Of the many surprises in the Mid-Atlantic region the first two weeks, none might be as unexpected as the resurgence of Washington and Jefferson. Following consecutive seasons of 6-3 and 5-4 and a fall from national prominence, as well as the retirement of longtime head coach John Luckhardt, the Presidents had fallen off the national radar.
Air traffic control might want to pick this crew up again after an opening-day 24-17 win at Emory and Henry and a 19-13 win against Allegheny. In fact, maybe they never should have left our consciousness. Three of last year's four losses were to Emory and Henry (10-0), Hanover (9-1) and Buffalo State (9-3). But in their first full season under longtime-assistant-turned-head-coach John Banaszak the program, ranked No. 9 in the inaugural AFCA Top 25, appears ready to make another run to the playoffs.
"I inherited a pretty good program with a lot of good players," said Banaszak. "I'm certainly the benefactor of what coach Luckhardt did in previous years."
Yesterday, Washington and Jefferson was a sleeper team. Today, they're in the Top 10. "We're certainly not going to sneak up on anybody," Banaszak commented.
Offensively the Presidents have gone to the West Coast. "We're going to be throwing the ball first to set up the running game. Last Saturday we threw the ball 44 times, but two big running plays set up our big touchdowns. Our last scoring drive was 92 yards, 80 in running plays. We had 234 yards passing and 228 rushing."
Sophomore Jon Pons averages 103 rushing yards per game and 7.6 per carry through the first two contests. Four different receivers have caught five or more balls. And the team leads the five-team Presidents Athletic Conference in both pass offense and pass defense.
Washington and Jefferson is a program that plays a tough schedule year-in and year-out. With only four conference games, there's room to play whatever kind of schedule travel permits. But there's no Oberlins, Newport Newses or William Patersons on this schedule.
Banaszak says his team is well-prepared for the toughness of games ahead. "I think the kids believe that even though we're playing some of the toughest schools in Division III we can compete against those teams. We've got a very tough schedule, but our kids believe there isn't anyone on the schedule we can't beat. We challenged them to come out of the box and win the first two games. Now we have to see if we can maintain that level of play."
Saturday the Presidents travel to Randolph-Macon, which was 7-3 last year and features a wide-open passing offense. "We played Hanover last year and it's a very similar offense. Shotgun, four and five receiver sets. We've got to get some pressure on (quarterback Brian) Partlow. The big thing is they're going to complete the passes, we have to limit the yards after the catch."
Just another step on the road to recovery. But in a year where most teams can breathe a little more easily, Banaszak knows that trying to get a bid out of a non-automatic conference is just as difficult as it always was. "It's too early in the season to talk about playoffs, but a lot of these kids have been around long enough to know that for us a slipup can be devastating. Every ballgame is a big game for us."
A team that has won 22 consecutive regular-season games shouldn't have to prove itself, but when Western Maryland was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in consecutive seasons and was playing Bridgewater, Juniata and Salisbury State in non-conference action, the question arose.
No more, as the Green Terror defeated the aforementioned Randolph-Macon 28-7 last Saturday. They haven't even trailed a regular-season opponent since the 1997 season finale, a 21-3 win against Johns Hopkins. Western Maryland got to Partlow, holding him to a single touchdown pass while intercepting him four times.
Fans hearing updates of the Lycoming-Juniata game Saturday in the stands were no doubt wondering what was up in Huntingdon. Juniata, which was 5-5 last year, led the defending MAC champs 3-0 and continued to stay in the game before losing 19-13.
Maybe a look inside the numbers will help. Quarterback Ryan Swailes completed only 14 of 35 passes for 164 yards. He was sacked five times. The team rushed for only 62 yards on 42 carries.
The caliber of competition wasn't the same, but Catholic looked much better in a 46-12 walkover of Franklin and Marshall in Week 2. Whether it was taking advantage of six Diplomat turnovers or posting 29 second-quarter points, the No. 18 Cardinals (1-1) looked better than in their 26-21 loss to No. 14 John Carroll.
Bright spots for the Cardinals included a 40-yard field goal by freshman Greg Stokes, the longest in head coach Tom Clark's tenure, and longest since T.J. Robles connected from 42 yards in 1991. Catholic and quarterback Derek McGee also went long over the middle on more than one occasion, dispelling the notion that the Cardinals are merely a shovel/screen pass offense. And those who say it's a two-man offense (seniors Andrew Notarfrancesco and Mike Hunter) would be advised to peruse the box score, in which Notarfrancesco carried for 32 yards (though three touchdowns) and Hunter caught three balls for 47 yards.
Franklin and Marshall's offense sputtered thanks to the six turnovers, three of which came on their first four possessions of the afternoon. The Dips tried three quarterbacks, one of which, David Makson, was 0-for-2 and sacked twice by Catholic's reserves. Defensively, however, senior linebacker Joe Gillespie shone, with 15 tackles, three sacks and four additional tackles for loss. He single-handedly cost Notarfrancesco 7 yards in tackles for loss. Also, punter Andy Gilburg (son of coach Tom Gilburg) boomed the second-longest punt in school history, a 70-yarder in the first quarter.
Dickinson, which has trumpeted itself as one of the top rushing teams of the '90s, won the 400th game in the history of the program in an unexpected fashion -- the big pass play. The Red Devils defeated Hobart 32-20 thanks to touchdown passes of 54 and 41 yards from quarterback Jeff Sturgeon to wideout Mike Bright.
Defensive back Kevin Myers returned an interception 98 yards, and senior Joel Heintzelman set a school mark for made field goals in a game with four, including a 40-yarder. Heintzelman also set a school record with two extra points, giving him a career total of 61.