For 60 minutes last week, Washington & Jefferson College’s football team played a game the way the coaches drew it up on the grease board.
Quarterback Matt Bliss was firing accurate darts to the receivers, especially Alex Baroffio, who played as if someone broke a bottle of Super Glue on his hands before kickoff. Tailback Dion Wiegand ran for some crucial gains, including a fourth-quarter first down that sealed a 31-14 victory over rival Waynesburg to give the Presidents a share of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference title and a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The defense allowed only one touchdown – Waynesburg’s special teams produced a score on a punt return – and didn’t allow Bertrand Ngampa, the PAC’s best running back, to take over the game in the Yellow Jackets’ run-first offense. Ngampa rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown, so not everything was perfect.
W&J’s secondary harassed Waynesburg receivers, allowing just 141 passing yards and, most important, intercepted two passes in the end zone.
The W&J offense had its second-highest point total and did not turn the ball over.
Now, the question is this: Can the Presidents repeat that performance Saturday in a first-round playoff game against Johns Hopkins?
“Yeah, we can beat them,” said Presidents’ head coach Mike Sirianni, who has a 92-20 record in 10 seasons and is taking his seventh W&J team into the NCAA playoffs. “We have to play very, very well again.”
One advantage W&J has over Johns Hopkins is the Presidents have been in playoff mode since being routed by Thomas More at midseason. That game came two days after starting tailback Tim McNerney was found dead in Washington. There was no room for another loss if the Presidents wanted to earn a playoff spot.
“We’ve been in playoff games the last four weeks,” Sirianni said.
W&J (8-2) is the underdog in this game because Johns Hopkins (9-1), the Centennial Conference champion, has an outstanding running back in Jonathan Rigaud and an offensive line that has extraordinary size. The Blue Jays have scored 40 or more points five times and hit 49 points three times.
The only blip on the screen came in a Week 9 loss to Franklin & Marshall, 14-12. In that game, Johns Hopkins had trouble finding the end zone.
“We didn’t do anything in the red zone,” said Johns Hopkins head coach Jim Margraff. “We were 2-for-6. It was just a rough day there and our only game on grass.”
Much of W&J’s hopes rest with Bliss, who has been inconsistent this season, except for last week. The Presidents need to score off sustained drives for two reasons: They will need the points and it keeps the Blue Jays’ powerful offense off the field. W&J controlled the ball for 31:47 against Waynesburg despite using Sirianni’s signature no-huddle offense for most of the game.
“We knew what was on the line in that game,” said Bliss. “We wanted to win the PAC championship for (McNerney) and if we lost that game, we couldn’t do that.”
Bliss and Baroffio will be keeping Johns Hopkins defensive coaches working late this week. Baroffio is coming off an 11-catch, 144-yard, three-touchdown game against Waynesburg.
“He was playing lights-out,” said Bliss. “He was my first read on a lot of plays. All of our receivers are great. He had something going on Saturday.”
The winner of this game will most likely face Mount Union, which has won 10 Division III titles. The Purple Raiders play 6-4 Christopher Newport in the first round. ... Johns Hopkins is making its fourth trip to the playoffs since Margraff took over in 2005. ... The Blue Jays are 15th in the AFCA poll and ranked 19th by D3football.com. ... W&J is 30-12-2 against Centennial Conference teams and is making its 22nd trip to the playoffs. ... W&J linebacker Ian Hennessy has 61 tackles in his last six games, including four 10-plus efforts.