Homecoming games don’t get much tougher than this.
As students, alumni, parents and friends at Grove City College celebrate the annual rite of autumn this weekend, the Wolverines (2-2, 1-1) will welcome unbeaten Thomas More (4-0, 2-0) at 2 p.m. today at Robert E. Thorn Field.
The Saints have taken the Presidents’ Athletic Conference crown back to the Crestview Hills, Ky., college each of the past two seasons. Despite having a much younger squad than in 2008 and 2009, Thomas More looks poised to do it again after a 29-21 win Sept. 25 over Washington and Jefferson and coasting to a 42-3 win last Saturday at home over Thiel.
“It’s a very challenging opponent,” Grove City head coach Chris Smith said. “But with that challenge and with (Thomas More’s) level of recognition comes the chance to have a great win.”
The Saints are 20-10 versus PAC opponents since joining in 2005. After rolling through the conference undefeated the past two seasons, Thomas More hasn’t lost a PAC game since a 42-0 setback to Washington and Jefferson Nov. 7, 2007. Thomas More has also been in the Division III playoffs each of the past two seasons, topping DePauw 49-39 in the 2009 opening round before being eliminated by Johns Hopkins (31-29).
Aside from trying to take down what may likely be the top team again in this year’s PAC when all is said and done, Smith’s team is also looking to rebound from the Wolverines’ second loss of the season Sept. 25 at Waynesburg, a 42-16 setback as junior Zach Gross took over at quarterback in his first full game after starter Clayton Hall injured his leg in the Sept. 18 win at Westminster.
With last weekend off, Smith said the Wolverines took some time to mend their wounds and placed an extra focus on the Saints.
“It gave us a chance to heal up a little bit,” Smith said. “We had just finished three straight road games, which is always challenging. This gave us a chance to regroup and get ready for Thomas More. That’s what we’re focused on right now.”
The key to beating the Saints is establishing some type of offensive attack early that can keep the ball out of Thomas More’s skill players’ hands, Smith said.
“Their offense is very explosive, but different (defensive) schemes can overcome it,” the coach added. “If we can control the ball and at the same time score some points, we can make something happen.”
In the past two runs to the conference title, Thomas More has relied mostly on its upperclassmen. But, after graduating stars like quarterback Trevor Stellman and Cordario Collier, a youth movement has begun under fourth-year head coach Jim Hilvert.
Running backs Domonique Haydon and Kendell Owens, along with sophomore quarterback Robert Cues, have accounted for 807 of the Saints’ 994 rushing yards this season. Haydon, a true freshman out of Lexington (Ky.) Christian Academy has led the pack, picking up 440 yards on the first 76 rushing attempts of his collegiate career. So far statistically, Haydon has reached the end zone once out of every eight times he’s touched the ball while averaging 110 yards per game.
Smith said the Wolverines will look to frustrate the Saints while on defense with different schemes in order to limit Haydon’s productivity, which was contained to a season-low 49 yards versus Washington and Jefferson.
A Grove City upset win over Thomas More could really turn the race for the PAC title on its side, Smith said.
“It would turn the PAC title chase into perhaps the most exciting chase the PAC’s ever seen,” said Smith, who is coaching in the conference for the 26th season and 27th year overall at Grove City.
With a Grove City win, the race would be potentially wide open with the Wolverines, the Saints, Washington and Jefferson, Waynesburg, Bethany and St. Vincent all clawing for space at the top of the PAC standings.
Elsewhere today in the conference, Westminster (1-3, 0-2) hosts Bethany (2-3, 1-1) at 1 p.m.; Washington and Jefferson (2-2, 2-1) hosts St. Vincent (1-3, 1-0) at 2 p.m.; and Geneva (3-2) hosts Waynesburg (2-2, 2-1) at 4 p.m.
EDINBORO AT SLIPPERY ROCK - Today’s 6 p.m. game at N. Kerr Thompson Stadium pairs two Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference rivals off to similar starts.
Edinboro and Slippery Rock have both began the season with 4-1 marks, both share a spot in third in the PSAC standings along with Gannon and both share a loss to the same opponent - Indiana (Pa.).
While Slippery Rock last week overcame a slow offensive start on the road to top Clarion 16-13, the Fighting Scots fell at home to the Crimson Hawks, 18-0. A week earlier, the Crimson Hawks (4-1) had edged Slippery Rock 17-0.
Before the loss to Indiana, Edinboro had rattled off four straight wins to begin the season - victories over West Liberty (20-19), West Chester (16-14), Cheyney (27-1) and Gannon (13-0).
Edinboro qualified for the 2009 Division II playoffs for the third time in the program’s history thanks in large part to the performance of quarterback Trevor Harris, who graduated and was in preseason camp this past summer with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. The Fighting Scots fell in the regional semifinals to West Liberty, a 84-63 shootout that was the highest-scoring game in the history of the D-II playoffs.
Harris’ younger brother, Cody, has taken over at quarterback for Edinboro and has thrown for 625 yards and four touchdowns so far this season.
After a nice start to the campaign, a win over Edinboro could be just the statement the 27th edition of the Slippery Rock football team under head coach George Mihalik needs, particularly heading into the Week 7 game versus California (Pa.). Aside from California, Edinboro is the only ranked team from the PSAC in either of the two major D-II polls.
Through the first four games of the season, Mihalik employed heavy doses of his team’s running attack, led mainly by former Cathedral Prep standout Akeem Satterfield, a sophomore who ranks third in all of D-II with an average of 147 yards per game.
The running game, mixed in with short outs and a few long bombs by quarterback Ryan Sabo, remained the method of attack in the first half of last week’s win over Clarion. But after a 3-3 stalemate at halftime, Mihalik shifted to a different type of attack in two third quarter possessions under the operation of backup signal-caller Mike Bongivengo, the former New Castle High star.
After a talk during the break with his players and coaches, Mihalik said he “decided to start the second half with that” package, using Bongivengo to spread the offense. The package opened up space for Satterfield to find holes after Clarion held the Slippery Rock offense to only 24 first-half rushing yards. It also opened room for Bongivengo to pickup up 13 big yards on four carries, including one that went for a 3-yard score and the team’s first of the ballgame.
“We went back with Sabo (in the fourth quarter versus Clarion) and got back in our normal rhythm,” Mihalik said. “But at least it got us that offensive confidence. It got us a touchdown.”
Mahalik said Slippery Rock was kind of limited on what it could do with the Bongivengo package after only working on it for a week in practice leading up to the Clarion game, but said it is something the team will likely incorporate into its regular offense.
Slippery Rock has been victorious in 45 of the 78 meetings between the two rivals who first met in 1926, but the Fighting Scots have edged Mihalik’s team each of the past two seasons (28-24 in 2009 and 35-14 in 2008).
The last Slippery Rock win came in 2007 at Thompson Stadium in a 59-34 win over Edinboro.
“This will be a typical Edinboro-Slippery Rock 60-minutes game,” Fighting Scots’ head coach Scott Browning said. “It should be a dog fight.”
Elsewhere today in the PSAC, Gannon (3-2) hosts California (5-0) at noon; Cheyney (1-4) hosts Bloomsburg (4-1) and C.W. Post (3-2) hosts Millersville (2-3), both at 1 p.m.; Indiana hosts Mercyhurst (3-2) and East Stroudsburg (1-4) hosts Kutztown (4-1), both at 2 p.m.; and Lock Haven (0-5) hosts Clarion (0-5) at 7 p.m.
PITTSBURGH AT NOTRE DAME - Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt said this week he will again start sophomore Dion Lewis at running back today when the Panthers (2-2) visit Notre Dame for a 3:30 p.m. game, despite another sophomore, Ray Graham, rushing for 277 yards in last week’s 44-17 win over Florida International.
Notre Dame (2-2), meanwhile, is averaging 24.6 and 404 yards per game and is coming off a 31-13 win over rival Boston College, the Fighting Irish’s first since a Week 1 victory over Purdue.
Also today in the Big East, Syracuse (3-1) and South Florida (3-1) open conference play versus one another in Tampa, Fla.
Non-conference games include Louisville (2-2) hosting Memphis (1-4); West Virginia (3-1) hosting UNLV (1-4) and Cincinnati (1-3) hosting Miami (Ohio) (3-2).
ILLINOIS AT PENN STATE - Penn State will look to rebound at noon today from last Saturday’s loss at Iowa when Illinois visits Beaver Stadium, a place where the Illini are 0-6 all-time.
Also today in the Big Ten, Indiana (3-1) visits No. 2 Ohio State (5-0) and Minnesota (1-4) visits No. 20 Wisconsin (4-1), both at noon; No. 17 Michigan State visits No. 18 Michigan at 3:30 p.m.; and Purdue (2-2) visits Northwestern (5-0) at 7:30 p.m.