Johns Hopkins came out of the gate this season against the brick wall of Delaware Valley. But despite a 23-7 loss, the Blue Jays did what many teams are lauded for doing: schedule tough out of conference games and get into the playoffs by way of the automatic qualifier.
Nearly three months later, they’re in the dance, along with Wesley, N.C. Wesleyan and Hampden-Sydney, the latter of which they’ll line up against on Saturday.
The tough opener is part of coach Jim Margraff’s plan. It’s a way to build. And he then pours the brunt of his energy into conference play.
“What we try to do, as best we can, is prepare for our conference,” he said. “I thought, let’s just start off with someone who’s going to be really tough. Really, I talk about our first two games as being preseason. I’ve never made a really big deal about losing those games just on how much we can improve week to week.”
By playing Randolph-Macon in Week 2, his team shares a common opponent with Hampden-Sydney. But there are other familiarities to factor in. In 2007, H-SC quarterback Corey Sedlar debuted as a collegiate starter in a 17-16 loss to JHU. Coming full circle, there is a sense that he can avenge that loss in a game with significantly bigger implications.
“We’re familiar with them, they’re familiar with us,” said H-SC coach Marty Favret. “A lot of those guys will be out there, those upperclassmen, were involved in that game in 2007.”
Margraff notes that his team has its work cut out for them.
“It’s a big challenge for us,” he said of the undefeated Tigers, who polished the regular season off with a muddy win at rival Randolph-Macon. “Offensively, they’ve always been great, but the big difference for them right now is they’ve got some really fine players on defense. They’re really aggressive.”
Johns Hopkins has faced high-powered offenses already this season. In addition to Delaware Valley, conference opponents Dickinson and Franklin and Marshall can boast being able to put up big numbers against opponents. But JHU was able to hold both of those Centennial teams to their fewest point totals of the season.
How do those lessons translate to Saturday?
“You try to find the two or three things they do best and make them do something different,” Margraff said. “Hampden-Sydney’s got so much. It’s a cliche, but it’s going to be a total team effort” to win.
Johns Hopkins told D3football.com at the beginning of the season that the wide receivers, led by junior Dan Crowley, would be crucial to a successful season. For the most part, that has held true.
“If you look at our best games, we always have a couple of big completions,” Margraff said. “We’ve got a good sophomore quarterback, and obviously a running back. Our offensive line is veterans. … We don’t have the type of guys who can catch a 3-yard pass and turn it into an 80-yard gain. But we do have guys who can make big plays. It just a matter of a high level of consistency.”
Churning out those kinds of performances much of the season has helped bring JHU to where the team is now. The arc is not unlike Hampden-Sydney’s, which has been eyeing this date since December last year.
And for the Tigers, it all came down to a “napkin promise.”
Favret and two of his best players, quarterback Corey Sedlar and linebacker Andrew Sellers, were having a meal at a restaurant in Roanoke, Va., with the athletes wavering about whether they would return to school for the 2009 season. Both had a year of eligibility left and both were coming off a year of missing the playoffs and losing The Game against R-MC.
They decided on giving it one more chance. The group pulled out a cocktail napkin, signed their names on it, “and they guaranteed an ODAC championship,” Favret recalled. “They gave it to me, and I kept it in my office, in my desk since then.
“I had it in my pocket Saturday,” he said. “During The Game, I pulled it out and surprised them afterwards. I said, ‘You guys may or may not remember doing this.’ Of course they had.”
Favret also showed the napkin with its promise to Sellers’ parents, a promise they were proud their son had kept.
That kind of commitment was also seen at Johns Hopkins during much of the season, apart from the “devastating” loss to Ursinus in midseason. Margraff remembers well the cold and rainy day, and counts Ursinus as one of those teams that matches up against his squad well year in and year out.
But he also said that loss fueled his team’s fire.
The week after the Ursinus game, “our guys just played at a different intensity level. We brought some of that to McDaniel last week, too, so I feel good about where we are right now.”
FSU finds spirit beyond the season
Though four Mid-Atlantic teams are getting an early Christmas present by virtue of taking part in the playoffs, one team in the region will help be the bearer of an early Christmas for others.
In 2004, students at Frostburg State’s Children’s Literature Center created an event called Storybook Holiday with the goal of putting books into the hands of needy kids in Western Maryland. And for the sixth year in a row, volunteers -- including members of the Bobcats’ football team -- will bring the event together on the first Saturday in December.
Aaron Deeb, a former Frostburg State wide receiver who later coached for two seasons, was on the forefront of getting the football team involved.
“When this idea came about, it was clear that we’d need volunteers,” Deeb said.
Deeb, now a teacher in Maryland, was in the university’s education program and was among the first group to put on Storybook Holiday. In addition to helping connect children with literature, the event planners also hoped to build a deeper bond between the university and the community.
Deeb suggested the idea to FSU’s former football coach and was given the opportunity to make a pitch at a team meeting.
“It’s voluntary, but if it’s a team activity,” Deeb said, “as much as possible you want the team to be together.”
And turn out together they did. A press release notes that more than 50 football players join hundreds of others to help a region that doesn’t always have a lot of access to books. The atmosphere they contribute to includes a parade, horse-drawn carriage rides, themed Christmas trees, an old theater playing holiday movies and a Santa’s workshop, where kids can write letters to the man in the red suit (and the post office has donated a mailbox in which to drop the letters). The city did its part, too, by encouraging local businesses to get involved.
The positive attitude from the players was apparent.
“It’s seeing the way they work with the kids -- not just pointing in one direction saying you have to go here and go there. I mean actually getting down with kids in the chairs or on their knees helping to make a craft,” Deeb noted.
Players are also on-hand to help people in and out of the carriages, and, as the school’s press release notes, some join with the senior citizen carolers.
In the often snowy and cold, the football team is still toughening things out much as it does in the regular season. But, of course, there’s comfort in it being a good cause.
Deeb is quick to remind you: “All of the fundraising goes toward getting books for kids and getting people interested in books.”
That is a good cause indeed.
The blitz package
The match in Fayetteville, N.C., led to an impressive 10-9 win for Methodist over Christopher Newport. CNU put up solid rushing yardage, but struggled to find the end zone as Monarchs quarterback Erik Teague completed 19 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown. The Methodist defense had an interception and a handful of pass breakups during the game, which was just the team’s third win of the season.
Ursinus capped off a rebound season with a 35-32 win over Dickinson, spoiling any shot the Red Devils had of an NCAA playoff berth. The Bears shot out to a substantial lead early on, up 21-3 at one point, before Dickinson found some offensive momentum to get back in it. Ursinus quarterback Justin Decristofaro threw three touchdown passes, including a 38-yard strike to open the day’s scoring.
The Regents Cup rivalry matchup between Salisbury and Frostburg State ended with a 34-19 victory for the Gulls. Rushers Randal Smedley and William Midgette were each able to twice punch the ball into the end zone for a team that racked up 382 yards on the ground. For Frostburg, two players -- Travis Blair and Terryl Monroe -- each had double-digit tackling totals.
In the big rivalry in Pennsylvania, Muhlenberg topped its Lehigh Valley rival Moravian 7-0. The only score came from a 6-yard pass to Steve Liparini, after a short drive that was set up by a blocked punt. The two teams combined for 23 tackles for loss on the day, 13 of which were sacks. Muhlenberg’s Jake Floyd and Moravian’s Allen Petros led their teams each having three tackles for loss.
Shenandoah suffered a 3-point loss to Greensboro on Saturday, the sixth time this season the Hornets have lost by that margin or less. Shenandoah dominated the stat sheet, totaling more than 200 yards more than the Pride. But three turnovers, including one “pick-6” by Mykel Searcy helped Greensboro win the game and usher in a 6-4 record, the team’s first winning season ever.
How my predictions ended up
At the beginning of the season, I picked 10 games to keep an eye on. How did those games turn out? Well, see for yourself:
Christopher Newport at Wesley on Sept. 5
The game that didn’t happen in 2008 couldn’t live up to the hype in 2009. Wesley rolled to a 34-0 victory over the Captains. But while the Wolverines were showing that they again belong in the national discussion, CNU was being faced with one of the biggest hardships imaginable -- the loss of All-America running back Tunde Ogun, who suffered a knee injury early in the game.
Ferrum at Emory & Henry on Sept. 5
Both teams came into this game with playoff hopes, and rightfully so. This game was a good indicator of team strength and stamina -- which in the end went E&H’s way after scoring a touchdown with just 14 seconds left in the game and nailing a 24-21 win. Wasps running back Caleb Jennings had 212 total yards on offense, including two touchdowns.
Hobart at Dickinson on Sept. 12
Rebounding from a loss in this game last year, the Red Devils showed how potent they can on offense when everything is clicking. Dickinson put up 383 yards, mostly on the ground, in the 26-3 victory. With three Dickinson player rushing 10 or more times, the team established the run-by-committee style that dominated much of the season.
St. John Fisher at Salisbury on Sept. 26
In 2008, this game was memorable for a four-overtime, 58-52 win for Salisbury. Though missing that dynamic fashion, the Gulls again won 38-20 -- this time holding Fisher to minus-44 yards rushing. It was also notable for being a turnaround point for a Salisbury team that dropped games the previous two weeks against N.C. Wesleyan and Christopher Newport.
Johns Hopkins at Dickinson on Oct. 10
This game wasn’t the final decider in the Centennial playoff race, but it was certainly one of the major speed bumps JHU encountered en route to the postseason. Dickinson, without All-America receiver Pat O’Connor, was handed its first loss of the season 23-12. Andrew Kase gave the Blue Jays two touchdowns and contributed to his team’s nearly 400 yards on offense.
N.C. Wesleyan at Christopher Newport on Oct.
For their second consecutive trip to Pomoco Stadium in Newport News, Va., the Bishops downed CNU, this time in a dominating 35-7 effort. That win set up NCWC run toward the playoffs and a conference-title decider in Week 11 against a resurgent Averett team. N.C. Wesleyan was helped in its win against CNU by four interceptions, two of which were made by Eric Williams.
Bridgewater at Emory & Henry on Oct. 24
With Hampden-Sydney finding an answer in the running game after the graduation of Josh Simpson, the Bridgewater/Emory and Henry game wasn’t the conference title matchup I was expecting. But don’t let that fool you. Both teams spent the season with solid records and battled each other to a 38-34 finish, with the Eagles rallying in the third quarter to help toward the win. The teams combined for more than 900 yards of offense. BC rusher Thomas Tate had 185 yards and two touchdowns, and E&H rusher Caleb Jennings went 192 yards for three scores.
Salisbury at Wesley on Oct. 31
The Gulls and Wolverines each changed from last season: Wesley improving, Salisbury slipping. Though neither went very far in either direction, it was enough to take some of the luster out of this matchup with Wesley cruising to a comfortable 30-12 victory. Wesley was able to force fumbles and pile on six sacks against its Route 13 rival. In essence, the game was the icing on the Wolverines’ Pool B cake.
Randolph-Macon at Hampden-Sydney on Nov. 14
It was a game of mud and grit, during which the lead changed hands or got tied up several times over the course of 60 minutes. A couple days after soaking rains hit much of Virginia, the teams battled to a 34-27 Hampden-Sydney win and the ODAC’s automatic qualifier to the NCAA playoffs.
Moravian at Muhlenberg on Nov. 14
This year, the game came down to pride more than playoff potential. Both teams struggled throughout much of the season, combining for just four wins prior to this rivalry game. And it was Muhlenberg that finished the year with a win, beating the Greyhounds 7-0.
I would be happy to hear from anyone who has feedback regarding the past season of the Around the Mid-Atlantic column or Division III football in general. For those going to the playoffs, there is still a lot to look forward to. To all those involved, good luck and stay healthy.