Joe Tuscano's Sports Column
Breaking down area’s small college football teams
Just past the midway point of the season, the area’s three local college football teams – California, Washington & Jefferson and Waynesburg – are still in decent shape for a postseason berth.
The following is a brief look at each team, the strengths and weaknesses, and outlook over the final month.
Where they are: The Vulcans have a 2-1 record in the PSAC West and 4-2 overall mark. The two wins in the conference came against Edinboro and Clarion. The one loss was to Indiana. Gannon leads the conference with a 3-0 record, and Cal is tied with Slippery Rock and IUP for second place.
How they got here: It’s been an unusual season for the Vulcans, who won a tough game on the road against Hillsdale to open the season, but ended up making a quarterback change during the IUP loss. Cody Schroeder was pulled after throwing three interceptions, including two in the end zone. Enter James Harris, who has similar numbers to Schroeder. Harris is 1-1 as a starter and Schroeder is 3-1.
The running game has been a weak spot. Jeff Knox, a transfer from Pitt, was used as a goal-line specialist last year but moved to a feature spot this season. He has been ill fit for that, averaging 3.4 yards per carry for his 310 total. Derrick Fiore, a Ringgold graduate, was a defensive back last season and has averaged just 2.8 yards a carry.
The wide receivers are the strength of the offense with Mike Williams leading the way with 30 catches for 439 yards. Trey Johnson (24, 267) and Kowan Scott (18, 340) have had their bright spots, but not enough to open the running game.
The defense has been good, not great. Safety Dewey McDonald has lived up to preseason hype, leading the team in tackles (49), pass breakups (5) and passes defended (7). He also has two interception returns for a touchdown. Defensive end B.J. Stevens has 5 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles. Very solid.
Where they are going: Cal’s fortunes will be known in back-to-back games against Gannon, Oct. 26 and Slippery Rock Nov. 2. Without a strong running game and uncertainty at quarterback, it’s hard to see the Vulcans winning either game.
Where they are: The Presidents are 3-1 in the conference and tied for first place with Waynesburg and Thomas More. W&J is 4-2 after knocking off previously undefeated Thomas More. Waynesburg and W&J play in the final regular-season game at Cameron Stadium Nov. 16.
How they got here: Just when most were ready to write off the Presidents, especially after a lackluster performance against Bethany the previous week, they come up with their best game of the year against Thomas More. A defense that was maligned played well. The special teams were magnificent, getting a punt block that set up a score and kickoff return by Dion Wiegand that produced another. And the offense in the Red Zone was great.
Quarterback Matt Bliss has been trying to return from a knee sprain, and he needs to be healthy if W&J has any chance to win the conference. Wide receiver Alex Baroffio (53, 618, 6) is one of, if not the best, players in the PAC. Wiegand is having a strong season running the football, 753 yards and a Division III-best 14 touchdowns.
Ah, but that defense. It was scorched for 733 total yards in a loss to St. John Fisher and 566 against Bethany. Worse, it has been giving up long touchdown plays: 87, 44, 77 and 30 to St. John Fisher; 56 in a win over Grove City; 30 in a win over Thiel and 34 to Bethany.
Where they are going: W&J has the softer part of the schedule with Westminster (1-2, 2-3) and Saint Vincent (0-3, 0-5) coming up. The Presidents should go into the Waynesburg game with the conference title there for the taking. And win it.
Where they are: The Yellow Jackets are 3-1 in the PAC and 5-1 overall. The only blemish on the record came at Thomas More in a 49-28 loss. Waynesburg is tied with Thomas More and Washington & Jefferson for first place, with Bethany and Geneva each a half-game behind. W&J is pulling for Waynesburg to beat Bethany today, because the Bison must still play Thomas More.
How they got here: The Yellow Jackets’ offense begins and ends with quarterback Carter Hill and his stable of wide receivers. Hill is having a fantastic season, passing for 1,816 yards and 18 touchdowns. Maybe his most impressive statistic is one interception in 246 attempts.
Andrew English and Bernie Thompson have combined for 72 receptions for 929 yards and seven touchdowns.
The passing game should open the running game, right? But that hasn’t happened. Jake Forsythe and Jerry Lawman have combined for 413 yards and five touchdowns. The Yellow Jackets are averaging 109 yards rushing and opponents are at 162.
The defense has been good with safety Bryan Gary leading the team with 45 tackles and defensive end Brandon Fedorka turning in 8 1/2 sacks.
Where they are going: Without much of a running game, the Yellow Jackets are vulnerable, relying on the passing game. You know the cliche: three things happen when you throw the ball, and two are bad. It’s surprising how poorly Waynesburg runs the football, especially with the coaching staff putting emphasis on that part of the game. In the end, it will prove costly.