Joe Tuscano's Sports Column
Sizing up local college football teams
Doogie Sanner is one of five receivers that Waynesburg counts on to make plays.
Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter
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With only a few weeks remaining in the season, the three local college football teams are facing different challenges to possible playoff berths.
California, Washington & Jefferson and Waynesburg will have their playoff fates determined in this final month. The following is a look at how they reached this point and what to expect in the final weeks.
Where they are: The Vulcans are 6-1, including 4-0 in the PSAC West. They are tied for first place with Mercyhurst, which has an identical record.
How they got here: Cal’s only stumble this season was a three-point loss to West Chester in a PSAC crossover game in Week 5. The Vulcans beat three Top 25 teams to start the season in Hillsdale, Kutztown and Edinboro. The wins over Kutztown (3-4) and Edinboro (3-3) don’t seem as impressive now and Hillsdale (5-2) is the lone team of that trio still ranked.
The Vulcans have the best quarterback in the West Division in Peter Lalich, who has averaged 300 passing yards and has thrown 17 touchdowns, but his nine interceptions are the second most in the PSAC. The running game has been disappointing. Tailback Lamont Smith is averaging just 77 yards a game and the rushing offense is 11th in the PSAC.
Cal is eighth overall in total defense, allowing 22 points per game. That number was helped last week by a 30-0 shutout over perpetual cellar-dweller Lock Haven.
What’s next: Another weak opponent waits in Gannon to start the final stretch of the regular season with a noon kickoff Saturday. The Golden Knights are winless in the conference and 1-6 overall. There might be some scoreboard watching this week because Indiana, one of the better West teams at 3-1 and 6-1, will host Mercyhurst in a 1 p.m. kickoff.
What they need: Cal needs to win its final three games – Gannon, Slippery Rock and Mercyhurst – to reach the PSAC championship game.
Mercyhurst has played Cal tough, beating the Vulcans in 2010 and falling by six points last season. If the Vulcans win out, a playoff spot probably will be a lock no matter what happens in the PSAC title game.
Washington & Jefferson
Where they are: The Presidents are 4-1 in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference and 5-2 overall. They trail first-place Waynesburg (5-0, 7-0) by one game.
How they got here: It’s been a nightmare season for the Presidents after starting tailback Tim McNerney was murdered in Washington two days before the Thomas More game in Week 5. An emotionally distraught team was routed by Thomas More, 54-18, but rallied for a 24-21 win over Westminster last week.
Prior to McNerney’s death, W&J lost to nationally ranked St. John Fisher, 28-24, after leading at halftime. Quarterback Matt Bliss has been inconsistent, passing for nine touchdowns but throwing seven interceptions. His 58 percent completion percentage is surprisingly low considering the strength of the receiving corps.
Alex Baroffio is on his way to a 70-catch season and Hunter Creel should be near 50.
The conference wins haven’t been overly impressive. W&J has won four games by a combined 29 points.
What’s next: W&J hosts Saint Vincent in a 2 p.m. Homecoming game. The Bearcats (0-4, 0-6) rank last in the nine-team PAC in total offense and scoring offense.
What they need: Mark Nov. 10 on the calendar, the date W&J and Waynesburg meet for what probably will be the PAC championship. W&J must win out or almost certainly get passed over for a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs. Three-loss teams rarely get in.
Where they are: The Yellow Jackets tied the 2007 Waynesburg team by winning their seventh straight game to start the season. They are in first place with a 5-0 mark, one game better than Washington & Jefferson.
How they got here: Maybe no other team in Division III has used as many skill position players this season – by choice. Waynesburg relies on three running backs, has used two starting quarterbacks, and has five players play at wide receiver, including Tyler Fatigante. He started at quarterback through the first five games but suffered a shoulder injury and was moved to wide receiver after Carter Hill took over two weeks ago.
Normally, that type of change would be tough to handle, but head coach Rick Shepas and his staff make it work because the defense has played so well.
Waynesburg has a four-point win over Thomas More, a one-point win over Thiel and a two-point win over Bethany that came on a final second field goal.
Maybe, but the running game helps. Bertrand Ngampa is coming off a 206-yard effort against Bethany. Dominic Moore is seventh in the conference and Fatigante might be a better runner than passer. He’s run for 242 and passed for 442.
The Yellow Jackets have the best overall defense in the conference and also are No. 1 against the run. Special teams are great, leading the conference in kickoff returns and punt returns.
What’s next: Waynesburg travels to Geneva (2-2, 2-4) for a 4 p.m. kickoff.
What they need: Remember Nov. 10, te date W&J and Waynesburg meet for what probably will be the PAC championship? If still undefeated, Waynesburg will win the PAC title and most likely get a home game in the Division III playoffs.
Assistant sports editor Joe Tuscano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org