Bethany vs. Thomas More Preview

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The Bethany football team will play its final two games of the 2012 season on its home turf, beginning Saturday with a visit from Thomas More. Kickoff at Bison Stadium is scheduled for 1 p.m.

The Bison (2-6, 2-4) concluded their road slate last week with a 26-13 victory at Thiel. Trailing 7-6 going into the fourth quarter, BC ripped off 20 consecutive points to post the triumph. Junior quarterback Matt Grimard threw for 293 yards and one score while rushing for a pair of TDs. Freshman wide receiver Eric Blinn hauled in eight balls for 182 yards and the score and freshman running back Phil Acrie rushed for 55 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown scamper for the final score.

The Bethany defense also enjoyed a good day, setting season-lows for points and yards (283) allowed. Senior linebacker Gage Lotozo led the team with nine tackles, including a sack, and junior safety Jordan Joyce earned PAC Defensive Player of the Week honors after making seven tackles and intercepting two passes, which both set up Bison scoring drives.

"Last week was a really good character win for us," said Weaver. "On the road, in bad weather, we had to play a ton of freshmen on defense and we were losing going into the fourth quarter. Thiel is a lot like us in that they are better than their record. They've played a ton of close games, losing to Waynesburg by a point and staying within a score of Thomas More to the end. Their defense hadn't allowed more than 300 yards in more than a month and for us to score four touchdowns and gain nearly 400 yards was big.

"And on defense, to hold them under 300 yards and two touchdowns, with one coming at the end when we're trying to milk the clock, says a lot about our guys and how they're still playing for each other," said Weaver.

The Bison boast a large senior class with more than 20 players. Many of them have posted strong campaigns, including wide receivers Johnathan Foster, who leads the PAC with 56 receptions, and Ed Holmes, who has a PAC-high eight touchdown catches, and linebacker Kyle Arrington, who is tied for second in the conference with 83 tackles.

Even with the size of the senior class, Bethany has also seen a good amount of underclassmen start to assume major roles this year, which bodes well for the coming seasons. Defensively, Weaver sees sophomore cornerback Wyssmy Despagne, who is third on the team with 35 tackles and has a program-best eight passes defended this year, and junior defensive tackle Seth Cawoski, who has 31 tackles, taking prominent leadership roles next year.

For the offense, the lone returning starter up front for next year will be junior center Evan Sargo, so Weaver expects him to guide the future starters. Junior wide receiver Cam Cooper has caught six passes and also been one of the Bison's top special teams players. But Weaver spoke most highly of Grimard and how he's taking charge to lead the program. The junior signal caller has broken Bethany career records for total offense, completions and passing yards the last two weeks and now has single-season marks for completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns in his sights with two weeks to go.

"Wys is our best player on defense and that's tough when you're a corner because you can avoid him," said Weaver. "But his practice habits and competitive drive are something I want every kid to look at and emulate. Seth gives a great effort every day and is also a great student. He's a good player. He's not great yet, but he'll get there with his habits and how hard he works.

"On offense, you have to have a leader on the offensive line and Evan should fill that role," said Weaver. "Cam is another one who is a great student and maximizes his ability. But the one who has worked really hard at developing into that type of leader is Matt. We will continue to push him into being a more attention-to-detail guy, but his practice habits are very good, he's posted back-to-back 3.0 semesters and he was over 3.3 at the midterm. He's doing the little things well now, which is good because he wasn't when we first got him. When one of your developing leaders is your quarterback and he's as talented as Matt is, it's good for the whole program."

Thomas More (5-3, 5-2) entered the season as four-time defending conference champions, but a 1-3 start ended their title hopes early in the year. Of those losses, one came against #24 St. John Fisher in overtime, another came at #22 Waynesburg by four points and the third was a two-point setback in a four-overtime thriller at Geneva. Injuries caused a lot of the issues for the Saints, as running back Dominique Hayden, the 2011 PAC Player of the Year, hasn't played since being hurt in the opening game and defensive stalwarts in linebacker Nick Gramke (First Team All-PAC in 2011) and defensive end Jay Volker (First Team All-PAC in 2010, then missed all of last year because of injury) have also sat out games.

"When Hayden got hurt, that's something that teams can struggle adjusting to," said Weaver. "They were also unsettled at the quarterback position and, not unlike us, their defense had some injuries. Gramke missed some games and Volker was coming back from an injury. But you look at their results, they lost to St. John Fisher and Waynesburg, two Top 25 teams, by one score each, and at Geneva in overtime, so it's not like they were getting blown out."

Since that tough start, Thomas More has rolled to four straight victories by an average of 27.5 points. Last week, TMC bolted to a 31-0 halftime lead and cruised to a 38-3 win at Saint Vincent. The Saints defense surrendered just 106 total yards, forced four turnovers and had four sacks. Volker led the way with eight tackles, including three for loss to give him a PAC-high 19.5 for the year. Among the other top players on the defense includes sophomore middle linebacker Aaron Lewis and senior safety Zach Autenrieb, who recently broke the Division III record for career interceptions with 32, including three in last year's 41-21 TMC win over the Bison.

"Over the last month, they are playing as well or better than anyone in our league," said Weaver. "Lewis has really developed at linebacker and looks like he'll be next in a long line of great players at that spot for them. Volker is back to playing very well and they are as good as anyone on the back end. Seems like Autenrieb has been there for 10 years because of the amount of big plays he makes."

On offense, running back Adam Rauch rushed for 92 yards against Saint Vincent and three touchdowns, giving him 11 for the season, and freshman QB Jensen Gebhardt continued his strong play, as he now has 869 passing yards and 11 TDs in five games as the starter. Although Weaver says the absence of Hayden and Kendall Owens, who scored on an 82-yard kickoff return, a 76-yard reception and a 48-yard run in last year's game, helps some, the Saints still possess many dangerous options on the offensive side.

"The freshman quarterback Gebhardt is really good," said Weaver. "He shows a lot of poise in the pocket for a freshman, is very accurate and has a big arm. While he's not as dynamic a runner as they've had there in the past, he is very effective when he does run it.

"They don't have a Kendall Owens on offense, but across the board, every guy is a playmaker," said Weaver. "Rauch has a bunch of 50+ runs this year, (senior wide receiver Mercier) Doucette can catch a slip screen and go the distance from anywhere on the field and their other young receivers are doing a good job. There is not one guy you say you have to stop, but there is not one guy you don't worry about. They are a little deeper at the skill spots and they do a good job getting the ball in a bunch of people's hands."

With the talent Thomas More has at the skill positions, Weaver says priority one for the Bison Saturday is to limit the big play. That doesn't just go for the defense, as the Saints' six touchdowns in last game were all on plays of 38 yards or longer. He also wants his team to be solid on special teams and not duplicate the three-turnover performance that haunted the Green and White in last year's defeat.

"Their formula to win is to play great defense, get a couple short fields and keep running their offense until someone hits a home run," said Weaver. "So we have to limit the big play by their offense and make them drive the field. We have to play error-free in the kicking game, because like they always do, they have a return here and a blocked kick there. And we need to put four really good quarters together on offense. We have to score to beat them even though they haven't allowed a touchdown in two weeks. I thought we did a good job executing on offense last year, but we have to eliminate the turnovers that cost us."