Bethany vs. Thiel Preview

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The Bethany College football team will try to end a two-game losing skid Saturday when long-time PAC rival Thiel comes to Bison Stadium for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff.

The Bison fell to 2-3 overall and 1-3 in the conference last Saturday with a heart-breaking 30-27 loss to visiting Westminster. The game had six changes and very nearly a seventh in the final minute when BC drove to the Westminster eight-yard line, but a fourth down pass was picked off and the Titans escaped with the triumph.

Bethany outgained their opponents for a second consecutive week (371-350), but two interceptions and two missed kicks haunted the Bison efforts. Sophomore QB Matt Grimard threw for 215 yards and two TDs, one of which went to senior WR Alex Evans, who had six catches for 88 yards and amassed 225 all-purpose yards in the game.

Defensively, sophomore safety Jamaan Webb made a career-high 13 tackles and picked off his second pass of the season, but problems slowing down the Titan running game which chewed up 296 yards, along with the missed kicks and not finishing potential scoring drives all led to the setback.

"Saturday was as disappointing a loss as we've had here in a long time," said head coach Tim Weaver. "Looking at the film, if we make any one of 15 plays, we win. We had a staff meeting on Sunday and thought if we make one little tweak or adjustment, we win. If the defense tackles a little better or makes one stop, we win. If the offense doesn't turn the ball over when going in to put us up two scores or if we can finish the drive at the end, we win. On special teams, we missed four points worth of kicks.

"So every phase of our operation could have been better," said Weaver. "We would be sitting here having a different conversation is we make one more play, but we didn't. So we learn from it and get ready for this week."

At the midway point of the season, even though the Bison's record isn't where Weaver or the team expected it to be, there have still been some highlights so far and a lot of things to build on for the second half of the year.

"We've continued to show defensive improvement," said Weaver. "We won two big games on the road against traditionally strong programs in Allegheny and Geneva. And we usually don't look at stats a lot, outside of turnovers. But we did look at last year's numbers when we had the same record after five games to this year's. Last year, we were being outgained by 40 yards and this year, we're outgaining teams by 80. Last year, we were being outscored by two touchdowns a game at this point and this year, we're outscoring teams.

"So we are a much better football team that has the same record," said Weaver. "Ultimately, that is my responsibility to help put the players in position to make plays and execute better so get a whole bunch of wins down the stretch. Looking at the conference standings, there are a lot of teams packed in the middle with one and two wins. We have four PAC games left to separate from that pack and I expect us to do that.

"I think the biggest highlight of the first half is for the first time, we know we are good enough, if we play a full 60 minutes, that we can beat everyone on our schedule," said Weaver. "But we've also learned that if we don't put full games together, anyone on our schedule is capable of beating us. Going down the second half of the season, it will come down to plays the hardest, executes the best and stays the healthiest."

Coming out with the same steady performance week after week is one area that Weaver wants to see improved in the second half, as well improving the ninth-ranked red zone offense in the PAC and plugging up a run defense that has allowed an average of 253 yards over the last two weeks.

"We need to improve our red zone offense and get back to being a stop the run first defense," said Weaver. "But the main thing I'm looking for in the second half is consistency. It's the number one challenge for every team trying to get over that final hurdle. We've gone from bad to competitive to good and great teams plays consistently week in and week out. So for us to take the final step, we have to find a way to be consistent every week."

Thiel comes into Bethany on Saturday looking to break into the victory column for the first time this year. The Tomcats are 0-5 overall and 0-3 in the PAC and since a 32-24 defeat in the opening game at Marietta, they have been outscored by an average of 44-10 over the last three weeks. But what makes this a nerve-wracking week for the Bison staff is that Thiel was off last Saturday and hasn't played since a 50-7 loss to #6 Thomas More Oct. 1.

"Any time you play a team coming off an open date, it's scary because that's a lot of time to prepare," said Weaver. "They should be well rested and get some guys back from injury. It also gives them a chance to put in stuff, especially on special teams and install some gadget plays."

The Bison have more wins against Thiel than any other school with 29, including two consecutive victories. Last year, BC netted three special teams touchdowns in a 41-7 victory in Greenville. The Tomcat quarterback that day was Andrew Smith, who has started the last two games this year due to an injury to opening day starter Jared Soell. Smith has thrown for 389 yards and a pair of touchdowns in place of Soell, who had passed for 333 yards and four scores before the injury.

The top Thiel running back is freshman De'Von Drish, who has gained 151 yards and scored one touchdown this year. A trio of receivers have caught 10 or more passes, led by Nathan Blazevich (19 rec., 172 yds., 1 TD), Nate Houpt (17 rec., 153 yds., 3 TDs) and tight end Kyle Turkalj (10 rec., 60 yds.). Weaver said his team should be ready for anything Saturday from the Tomcat offense.

"We should expect the unexpected," said Weaver. "They have improved and their scoring has nearly doubled from last year. The freshman running back is really good and we will be prepared for either quarterback. We definitely need to be ready in case (Soell) plays because he runs around a lot and is a different animal. We have shown vulnerability to the option, so we expect to see that. Our big key defensively is deal with adversity if they do hit something big. We did that well the first couple weeks, but don't think we've bounced back as well the last couple games."

The Thiel defense is led by a linebacking corps consisting of all upperclassmen. Junior Ethan Ludwig leads the team with 44 tackles, including 28 solos, while senior middle linebacker Ryan Dawes has 32 hits and three pass break-ups. The top threat on the front line is junior defensive end Tim Taylor with 24 tackles, including five for loss. With seven juniors or seniors starting on defense, that experience combined with the play makers Thiel has makes it a defense that can cause problems.

"They are trying to be simple defensively and just line up and be sound," said Weaver. "I love their defensive end Taylor, who just makes plays every game. We have to pay attention to him in protection and the run game. By week six, you have so much film, we don't want to go crazy with adjustments. We want to prepare like we usually do, plan on being a balanced offense and keep them guessing on what are running and passing situations for us."

Although the Tomcats are struggling so far this year, Weaver is quick to remind his team that it wasn't long ago that Thiel was at the top of the PAC. Many of the upperclassmen and the coaching staff have ties to the championship years and he expects a focused Thiel program to come to Bethany Saturday.

"They are not far removed from going to the playoffs and were the top team in the PAC when we got here," said Weaver. "A lot of their coaches were on that staff and their older players played with guys who won championships. They are a proud program and we expect them to come in here and play hard and play well. At some point, they will win a game and we have to come out and play as well as we've played all year to make sure it happens another week."