August 31, 2011

Bethany Kicks off New Season Saturday at Allegheny

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A much anticipated season kicks off Saturday for the Bethany College football team when the Bison travel to Allegheny for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Frank Fuhrer Field in Meadville, Pa.

Despite opening last year with a 28-0 loss in the opener to Allegheny, the Bison closed out last fall with a 5-5 overall record and 4-3 mark in the PAC, the program's best season since going 6-3 in 2001. With 19 starters back, including eight All-PAC selections, that experience helped Bethany complete a very successful training camp, although it was a group of freshmen that made the biggest surprise in camp, according to sixth-year head Tim Weaver.

"I thought we had a really good camp," said Weaver, who is ranked sixth in Bethany history in coaching wins. "We only suffered one season-ending injury in (junior DB) Tremayne Ford (Ft. Washington, Md./Friendly), so we came out pretty healthy, got better and were able to install a lot more and accelerate the learning curve.

"Although we have so many veterans back, I would say the biggest surprise of camp was our freshmen defensive linemen," said Weaver. "We like our whole freshmen class, but that group will step in and give us depth right away."

Bethany brought back three starters on the defensive front, including senior DE Kasib Taalib-Din (New York, N.Y./Central Park Past), who was second in the PAC with 8.5 sacks last year, junior DT Blake DeBord (Martinsburg, W.Va.), who made 29 tackles and recovered two fumbles in 10 starts last year, and sophomore DE Prince Aguzie (Randallstown, Md.). But the incoming freshmen will see time right away to give BC the ability to send out fresh bodies throughout the season.

"The development of the freshmen gives us a better chance to have a real rotation," said Weaver. "In the past, we've been able to spot guys, but now we have a chance to play three or even four guys at both the end and the tackle positions. This should help keep guys fresh, both for the end of games and for the long haul of the season."

Three starters are also back in the secondary, including brothers Jeff and Jordan Joyce (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin) and sophomore safety Jamaan Webb (Jacksonville, Fla./University Christian) . The unit is bolstered by the return of sophomore cornerback Raphael McGee (Greensboro, N.C./Frederick Douglas), who sat out last year after seeing significant time as a freshman in '09. The Bison pass defense must improve after ranking eighth in the PAC last year, but due to the knowledge gained last year and the team's ability to put more pressure packages in, Weaver believes strides will be taken.

"We worked really hard on defending deep throws," said Weaver. "That was our biggest weakness last year. Early on it was missed coverages and later in the season, it was due to not making plays on the ball. We think we're better, but we won't know until someone tries to throw it over our head.

"However, due to the experience of the guys that are back, we were able to install more blitz packages," said Weaver. "We won't become a blitzing team. If we can pressure the quarterback with four good defensive linemen, that's what we'd rather do, but now we'll have more things ready."

The Bison offense could be ready for a big year with nine starters back in the fold, led by senior RB Eric Walker (New Brighton, Pa.). He already owns the school's career total (39) and rushing (33) touchdown records and with 2,490 career rushing yards, he is 456 away from claiming that record as well. Also back is sophomore QB Matt Grimard (Lowell, Mass./Dracut), who amassed 2,372 total yards last year while rushing for 11 scores and throwing for 10 more, and four-fifths of the offensive line, highlighted by senior center and captain Cory Potter (Akron, Ohio/Green). Weaver said the entire offense grew and improved as a unit, mainly due to their familiarity with each other.

"I wouldn't say one individual unit improved in camp more than the offense as a whole," said Weaver. "We got better at throwing screens, as well as throwing intermediate cuts, which we struggled at last year. It all goes to having those starters back and having that comfort level and trust in each other."

While Bethany was able to rebound from last year's opening game to post a solid season, the victory helped launch the Gators to a strong year as well. Allegheny finished the 2010 campaign with a 7-3 record overall and a 5-2 mark in the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC). In the Gator victory at Bison Stadium, neither running attack gained much ground, but Allegheny signal caller T.J. Salopak threw for 207 yards and four touchdowns.

However, the Bison will not have to contend with Salopek, who graduated after setting Allegheny career records in total offense, passing yards, completions and attempts. Expected to get the start under center is Jordan Fowler, a 6-0, 178-pound senior, who played in just two games last fall. The Gators also suffered heavy losses at wide receiver, as the top three pass catchers from a year ago have graduated. But Allegheny does return tailback Brian Tamburlin, who ranked third in the NCAC last year with 609 rushing yards, as well as four starters on the front line, led by senior left tackle and First Team All-NCAC choice Sam Taylor.

Although Bethany won't have to contend with an experienced quarterback like Salopek, Weaver said it's just as difficult trying to game plan for a team when there isn't film available on the expected starter.

"All you can do is prepare for what you've seen," said Weaver. "They are an established program, so we don't see wholesale philosophical changes. Really, the only time you have an advantage starting a young quarterback is the first game because there is no film. So we don't know what throws he's comfortable making or whether they might try to throw out in the flat more. The other wild card is whether he can run and will he be able to scramble and make plays with his legs.

"But we anticipate they will try to stay balanced and run the ball to set up their play action, which they're very good at," said Weaver.

The Allegheny defense returns six starters, but also lost key players to graduation. The Gators finished ninth in the nation against the run, allowing just 63 yards per game, and they forced four Bethany turnovers, including three interceptions, to blank the Bison in the opener last year. A pair of linebackers will lead the Gators this year in John Douglas, who led the team with 4.5 sacks and 12 hits for loss, and Doug Williams, who made 50 stops.

While Weaver said he expects a sound unit to line up across from his Bison Saturday night, the key will still remain holding on to the football.

"The main adjustment we have to make from last year is not turn the ball over four times," said Weaver. "They lost good players up front, at linebacker and a dynamic playmaker at safety. But they've been a good defensive football team for a long time and a tradition-rich program where good players want to go. Like their offense, we don't expect to see wholesale changes. We do expect they will be sound, physical and good tacklers."

Although Bethany came up on the short end against Allegheny last year, the program took a lot from that loss and used that to help push BC to its best season in nine years. If the Bison continue to learn from that game and play strong fundamental football, Weaver believes Saturday's game will be within reach going into the final period.
 
"Going into the Allegheny game last year, we were still trying to figure out what our quarterback could do and we quickly found out some things we shouldn't be doing," said Weaver. "That game helped us shape what we were going to do going forward. We will still need to make plays in the passing game, but we are a lot more comfortable knowing what we can do.

"Last year's game was a defensive struggle without the turnovers," said Weaver. "We held them under 290 yards (288) and they held us to around 200 (202), so there wasn't a lot of offense except off the turnovers. If we can play well on defense and don't turn it over, it could be a one-score game going into the fourth quarter instead of the four-score game we had last year."
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