Coming off its closest loss of the year and second straight setback by four points or less, the Bethany College football team will try to make it a happy Homecoming when it hosts Geneva at Bison Stadium in a 2 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
The Bison saw their record dip to 0-4 overall and 0-2 in the PAC with a 28-26 heart-breaking loss at Washington & Jefferson. It was the closest game between the long-time rivals since a 14-12 BC win in 1961. Bethany raced out to a 20-7 halftime lead, only to see the Presidents score three straight touchdowns in the second half. The Bison moved within two points on a 21-yard touchdown pass from junior QB Matt Grimard (Lowell, Mass./Dracut) to freshman WR Eric Blinn (Beaver, Pa./Western Beaver) with 54 seconds to play, but the two-point conversion attempt failed and W&J managed to hang on for the victory.
Grimard finished the night with 234 passing yards and two touchdowns, while the Bison defense was paced by senior linebacker Kyle Arrington (Jackson Twp., Ohio/Jackson) with 12 tackles, but the loss was a tough one to take for the Bison program and head coach Tim Weaver.
"Last week is hard to talk about," said Weaver. "We played some of the best football we have in our time here in all three phases. The players gave a great effort and executed at a high level. I thought the coordinators came up with a great game plan. We came up one play short. We have to figure out how to make that one play at the end, whether it's a creative call by a coach, one extra step by a player or a unit stepping up to make a play happen."
Another highlight to the game was the play of sophomore running back Phil Acrie (Verona, Pa./Linsly). He carried 18 times for a career-high 94 yards and scored on a 19-yard touchdown gallop in the first half, while also pulling in two receptions for 30 yards. The running back position was a question mark coming into the year due to the inexperience of those returning, but with Acrie, who has rushed for 210 yards and two TDs in four games, and sophomore Brandon Hill (McKeesport, Pa./Elizabeth Forward), who has earned 12 carries, Weaver says the Bison are pleased with their depth.
"We thought when we recruited Phil, we were getting a special talent," said Weaver. "He showed it last year, but got hurt two or three separate times and was never able to compete for the back-up job because of his health. He had a good spring and then came into camp and got hurt again. But now he's healthy, showing his ability and we think he has a chance to be an all-conference back.
"Brandon has also really developed," said Weaver. "We knew he was really fast. We weren't sure what kind of football player we were getting, but now we feel real good about him too. Brandon is a good blocker, which is a place Phil can improve, and both can catch it. We really like our running back situation going forward."
Bethany also enjoyed a big week from freshman kicker Justin Evans (Niles, Ohio/Niles McKinley). In addition to drilling field goals of 29 and 39 yards to help propel BC to its halftime lead, five of his six kickoffs went inside the W&J 10-yard line, with the lone exception being an onside attempt at the end. With Evans' work so far, that has freed up sophomore Stephen Amic (McDonald, Pa./West Allegheny), who handled both kicking jobs last fall, to just focus on punting and he was excellent on Saturday too, averaging 42.3 yards on five punts with a long of 63. Having those kinds of weapons on special teams is a big help in game planning for the Bison.
"It changes a ton of stuff," said Weaver. "When you feel really good about kickoffs going inside the five-yard line and the other teams' average starting field position is inside the 35, it makes them much easier to defend. I think it raises the whole teams' confidence when you get inside the red zone and knowing if we stall out, we're still going to get three points. Then the offense can just play and not force things, which I think is why we've been so effective at scoring touchdowns inside the red zone because not every play is do-or-die.
"And a hidden benefit to Justin's development is that it's allowed Stephen to relax," said Weaver. "Now he can just focus on punting and as he showed Saturday, he can be one of the best punters in the conference. Now we have two really good specialists who can help us in field position and the red zone."
The Bison may need to focus on the field position battle on Saturday against a Geneva team (1-3, 1-1) that ranks first in the PAC in scoring (31.0) and total offense (433.5). The Golden Tornadoes picked up their first win of the season last Saturday by surprising Thomas More 50-48 in a four-overtime thriller. Quarterback Rocco Colavecchia, who is this week's PAC Offensive Player of the Week, scored two touchdowns in the final 2:30 of regulation to tie the game and then scored twice more in OT, including the game-winning five-yard TD run in the final extra period.
Geneva will use two quarterbacks in the game Saturday and can employ two completely different looks. Colavecchia is the stronger runner of the two, as he's rushed for 268 yards and six touchdowns, but Zack Hayward is leading the PAC with 266 passing yards per game, as well as nine touchdowns. It's been an inconsistent season for the GTs offensively, as they scored 50 against Thomas More and 53 in a loss to Frostburg State, but were held to 14 in an OT defeat at Thiel and seven in a loss at #18 Hobart. Although it won't be easy, Weaver is hoping his team can replicate the success Thiel and Hobart found.
"Well, you have to give Hobart and Thiel credit because they are very good on defense," said Weaver. "But Geneva is similar to Grove City in that they have two offensive philosophies they can use in a game. And when they get in a groove with one of them, they can be hard to stop. Last week against Thomas More, they spread it out and by the end, they were throwing it and catching it and when they did sneak a run in, it went for big yards.
"For us this week, we need to keep it simple as we can," said Weaver. "We need to have a good handle on what to expect when they spread it out and on their misdirections when they go with bigger sets."
The Geneva defense has been similar to the offense. Frostburg rang up 56 points in a season-opening win and Thomas More was able to post 48, but the GTs were solid in the 21-14 loss to Thiel, with the winning touchdown coming on a busted field goal attempt, and the 28-7 defeat to Hobart. Linebacker Dillon Goodell is the PAC leader with 43 tackles in four games, including five for loss, and safety Brett Hutira is tied for second with 39 stops.
"Geneva is committed to what they do on defense," said Weaver. "They know it, understand it and execute it. They take a lot of things away on their alignment. We'll have to make plays in the passing game to try to loosen them up. Then we can establish some balance, get the ball in Phil's hands and let Matt run a few."
Saturday marks the midway point of the season and a disappointing start can begin to get turned around if the Bison can pick up a victory in front of a Homecoming crowd. But for that to happen, Weaver says they must focus on things like not turning the ball over and not worrying about their record or the score and just take care of their assignments.
"First key for Saturday is win the turnover battle," said Weaver. "We also need to be the better team on third down. Not only convert them on offense, but stop them to get them off the field and keep their offense off the field. And the team needs to make sure we don't press. We've done a good job with that so far.
"There is a difference between our 0-4 and other 0-4 teams who are getting blown out every week and there is no hope," said Weaver. "We've had a chance to win every game in the fourth quarter. It's frustrating we haven't, but it shows we are a good football team. We've been telling the team to not focus on the score, but focus on the little things needed to win and the score will take care of itself."