November 9, 2011

Bethany at Saint Vincent Preview

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For the second time in three weeks, the Bethany College football team will go out on the road to face one of the top teams in the PAC, as the Bison journey to Latrobe, Pa., Saturday to face Saint Vincent in a 1 p.m. kickoff.

Last Saturday, Bethany improved to 4-4 overall and 3-4 in the PAC with a 33-14 victory over visiting Grove City. The contest was scoreless at halftime before BC erupted for five second-half touchdowns to claim just their second win over the Wolverines in the last 15 meetings. Sophomore quarterback Matt Grimard (Lowell, Mass./Dracut) accounted for 269 total yards, threw two touchdowns and rushed for another.

The win was also highlighted by a defense that limited GCC to 259 total yards and a special teams unit that used two big punt returns and a blocked punt to set up touchdowns drives. The complete win was key, as the Bison strive to have a big finish to the campaign.

"Last week's win was important," said Bethany head coach Tim Weaver. "We talk about finishing the season strong and now we have a chance to go 4-1 in the second half. We also talk about not letting games get away from us against teams we feel we match up with well. There was no panic at halftime, even though we felt we left some plays on the field. The staff put together a good plan and the players executed it very, very well.

"Overall, it was a total team win and everyone contributed," said Weaver. "Defensively, we held a team to under 300 yards and two touchdowns, the offense scored five touchdowns in the second half and the special teams set up short fields with punt returns and blocked punts. And it came against a good team coming in on a two-game winning streak who hadn't been handled that way since early in the year."

The effort put up by the Bison defensively Saturday is becoming a usual occurrence. It was the second time in the last three games BC held its opponent under 260 total yards and for the year, the Green and White ranks fourth in the conference in total yards allowed (314.4), which would be the lowest average given up by a Bethany defense since 2002 (300.1).

One big factor to the Bison's strong play is the linebacking core of juniors Kyle Arrington (Jackson Twp., Ohio/Jackson) and Gage Lotozo (Somerset, Ohio/Sheridan) and sophomore Tyrell Scott (Lanham, Md./Parkdale). Arrington is third in the conference with 73 tackles, while Lotozo, who also has two touchdown receptions as a goal-line back, has been in on 33 hits and Scott has made 36 stops. With this group leading the way and nearly everyone on the entire defense set to return next year, Bethany's best days may still lay ahead.

"Good linebackers make a college defense and our group is very good and steady," said Weaver. "Kyle, Gage and Tyrell all played really well against Grove City. We've also had (sophomore safety) Jamaan (Webb of Jacksonville, Fla) play in a hybrid position for us and he's been productive.

"The improvement in our defense has been great to watch," said Weaver. "We knew we solved the linebacker situation two years ago when we recruited Kyle and Gage, but they were freshmen, so we had growing pains to go through. We've added pieces to the defensive line over the last couple years, starting with (senior) Kasib (Tallib-Din of New York, N.Y.) and (junior) Blake DeBord (Martinsburg, W.Va.). Then we added sophomores in Zach Burton (Hurricane, W.Va.), Prince Aguzie (Randallstown, Md.) and Seth Cawoski (Greensburg, Pa./Greensburg Salem) and have freshmen stepping in this year like Randy Bush (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin) and Greg Roberson (Upper Marlboro, Md./Frederick Douglas).

"In the secondary, we hit the jackpot with a lot of the guys we recruited last year and moving Jeff Joyce (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin) there and then added another good class this year," said Weaver. "Looking ahead to camp next year, the only key component we lose is Kasib and we have a few guys coming back from injuries. We'll still not where we want to be, but we're getting there."

The continuing maturation under center of Grimard, who is second in the PAC in passing yards (1,857) and third in touchdown passes (15) can be tied to the deep receiving corps the Bison run out every week. Three BC wideouts are ranked in the top 10 in the conference in receptions per game, including senior Alex Evans (Washington, Pa.) at 4.4, junior Ed Holmes (Virginia Beach, Va./Landstown) with 4.2 and sophomore Daryl Powell (West Point, Va./King William) with 4.1. Add in junior Johnathan Foster (Cumberland, Md./Fort Hill), who caught a 26-yard touchdown pass against Grove City, and sophomore RB Nico Irizarry (Youngstown, Ohio/Ursuline), who has 18 catches out of the backfield, and Bethany has plenty of targets for their second-year signal-caller.

"The key for that group is they've been healthy," said Weaver. "We've been able to run the same four and five guys out there every week and being out there every day in practice has allowed them to get the timing down with Matt. We are constantly challenging them to get better. We still have way too many drops and when someone isn't early in the progressions, they don't always run the routes to the right depth. If we are going to take the next step, we are as talented as anyone we play at that spot, but we need more consistency from them."

This week's Bison opponent has been ever so close to taking the next step of their own. Saint Vincent, who went 4-36 in the previous four years since bringing back varsity football, brings a 5-4 overall record and 4-3 mark in the conference into their regular season finale Saturday. The Bearcats have lost three games by a field goal, including two in overtime, and the fourth loss came by five points to Grove City.

Last week, Saint Vincent scored two first-quarter touchdowns and used a spectacular effort from their defense, which allowed only 153 total yards and forced four turnovers, in a 21-9 victory over Westminster. Quarterback Aaron Smetanka threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns and ran for the other score, as SVC clinched its first .500 season since 1961.

"Give a lot of credit to Coach (Bob) Colbert and his staff for their turnaround," said Weaver. "I think our programs are very similar in terms of having to rebuild and in Division III terms without scholarships, they've done it quickly. They found their quarterback in Smetanka and did a tremendous job of keeping kids in the program. They also stayed with their system, as they are running the same plays they did four years ago, but now they have bigger, stronger, more experienced players running them."

The Bearcats have also had a remarkable turnaround on defense, as they lead the conference in fewest yards allowed (288.2) and are second in points allowed (16.8). The unit is led by a pair of undersized, but dynamic linebackers in 5-9 Anthony Johnson, who leads the league with 87 tackles, and 5-8 Armando Fortunato, who has been in on 60 stops. In addition, Saint Vincent had a conference-best 15 interceptions, including five by strong safety Dan Wirkowski and four from cornerback Darius Brown.

"They play as hard as anyone in the league," said Weaver. "Everyone understands where they need to be and can tackle. It's amazing to watch their linebackers because you think going in you are going to be able to do just about whatever you want. But no one has. They don't get blocked, are really fast and great tacklers, and very instinctive. And their secondary improvement is almost remarkable. They are very good back there."

Many may think the Bearcat offense rests solely on Smetanka, a First Team All-PAC choice last year. And while he has thrown for 1,845 yards and 13 scores, it's the Saint Vincent running attack that has Weaver concerned. The SVC ground game ranks third in the conference with 156.4 yards per game and features a solid one-two punch in Huey Ehredt (692 yards, 4 TDs) and Mike Kale (509 yards, 4 TDs). One area of concern for the Bearcats is the turnover bug, which has bitten them 20 times this season, including four in the Grove City loss.

"They are doing better when they're more balanced," said Weaver. "They run more of a pro style, which almost feels like defending the option now with everyone spreading you out so much. They are really good at executing in their run game. It makes you put more people closer to the line of scrimmage and leaves your secondary more vulnerable. And they are still very successful throwing the ball downfield. We want to try and stop the run with as few as possible, which isn't easy. You need to somehow make them one-dimensional, which is when they've struggled. And when they've lost, they've turned it over, so we need to look to force some miscues."

These two teams have also relied on big special teams plays to carry them through to victories. One needs to look no further than last Saturday the effect long punt returns and a blocked punt had on the Bison victory. For Saint Vincent, in their 17-14 victory over Waynesburg Oct. 29 that knocked the Yellow Jackets out of the race for the PAC championship, the Bearcats blocked two punts, one which was returned for a score and another that set up SVC's other touchdown. So Weaver and his team know that a big play on special teams could turn the tide Saturday.

"Saint Vincent has done everything on special teams from block punts to fake punts," said Weaver. "It's week nine, so all the secrets are out and everything is on film. Both teams have made big special teams plays in every win. The battle will come down to who can execute, making sure you read all your keys and having the guys ready to complete at high level on every kick play. Our guys understand how important this phase is to winning games."
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