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Oct. 20 - BETHANY, W.Va. – Winners of three consecutive games, all coming in PAC play, the Bethany College football team can claim a share of first place in the league if they can upset two-time defending conference champion and ninth-ranked Thomas More (6-0, 4-0) Saturday at Bison Stadium in a 1 p.m. kickoff.

The Bison (4-3, 3-1) picked up their third straight victory in convincing fashion Saturday with a 41-7 rout at Thiel. The Bethany special teams paved the way with three touchdowns, including an 87-yard kickoff return by junior Jeff Joyce (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin), a fumble recovery in the end zone by freshman Chris Collins (Youngstown, Ohio/Ursuline) off a bad punt snap and a blocked punt by Collins that led to a fumble recovery in the end zone again, this time by sophomore Jarrell Smalls (Whitmire, S.C.).

In addition to the special teams, freshman QB Matt Grimard (Lowell, Mass./Dracut) ran for two scores (12, 13) and threw for another, a 29-yard scoring toss to Collins, while the defense limited the Tomcats to 175 yards and just 13 percent (2-15) conversion rate on third down. Bison head coach Tim Weaver said the performance, while not as sharp as he would have liked, was still impressive under the circumstances.

“I was really pleased we made as many plays as we did,” said Weaver. “It was a long trip against a winless team and, although we never mentioned it to the players, with this game coming up the next week, to go out and play like we did answered a lot of questions about our guys. We didn’t play really well in any phase of the game, but we made big plays. You have to go out and make plays like that to beat a team like Thomas More because they are filled with playmakers.”

The special teams showed they are loaded with playmakers throughout the coverage teams and the returners. Weaver says the older Joyce’s kickoff return, which earned him a spot on the National Team of the Week, as well as a 35-yard punt return by his younger brother Jordan Joyce (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin), were a long time coming and they are just two of the team’s numerous potential standouts in the return game.

“Our execution in the return game was very good last week,” said Weaver. “We’ve been telling the kids for a month now we were a block away. Last week, we blocked everyone and Jeff made the kicker miss, and we also had very good blocks on Jordan’s big punt return that set up the last touchdown. You need to have enough talent in the return game and we are fortunate to have five or six kids we could put back there who can hit a home run.

“On the two punt plays last week, we’ve had that happen to us before,” said Weaver. “And when it’s happened, the punter would be able to get the kick away before we got to him, we would just miss the block or some other unlucky break. Now we have the playmakers that can finish when we have those opportunities.”

The Bison defense, which was led by Jeff Joyce and sophomore LB Kyle Arrington (Jackson Twp., Pa./Jackson) with eight tackles each and junior DE Kasib Taalib-Din (New York, N.Y./Central Park East) with 1.5 sacks, also turned away Thiel on two of their three trips to the red zone. In seven games this year, Bethany has given up only 18 touchdowns in 32 trips to the red zone by the opposition (56 percent), which is far better than the 72 percent (33-46) last season. According to Weaver, it’s a continued part of the unit’s maturation process.

“If you look across the board statistically, we are significantly better in every area than we were last year,” said Weaver. “That includes the red zone, where even in some of our losses, we had red zone stops against Allegheny and Geneva. We put an emphasis on doing well in the red zone every year and it’s about believing in what we do. We have more experience in the front seven and keep it simple for the young guys in the back.”

Bethany’s success in the red zone offensively is nearly off the charts, especially when compared to last year when they tallied points on just 56 percent (22-39) of their drives that ended in their foes’ 20-yard line. Due to the big plays last week, BC was just 2-for-2 on red zone chances last week, but now for the year, they stand at 88 percent (21-24), including 20 touchdowns.

“We really stress about finishing drives,” said Weaver. “One key to finishing in the red zone is having playmakers and we know we have some and we have more who continue to surface every week. Another factor is being balanced, which has developed more in recent weeks as Matt has shown a knack for making very good throws around the goal line. And the other key is having an offensive line that is able to protect and move people.”

The challenge this week for Bethany is greater than any they have faced this season. Thomas More is ranked ninth in the country in this week’s AFCA poll and 10th in the poll. The Saints have won 18 consecutive regular season games dating back to November, 2008, 12 straight league tilts going back to the 2007 regular season finale and have won the last two meetings with the Bison by scores of 42-12 in 2008 at Bethany and 40-12 last season at home. Even without those numbers and just looking at Thomas More on film, Weaver knows how strong the opponent is this week.

“They are good everywhere,” said Weaver. “They give up two yards a carry and score 36 points a game. They have one running back who can run away from you and another who can run over you. They have the two best defensive ends we’ve seen on a defense that runs better than anyone we’ve played. They are every bit as good as you would expect a Top 10 team to be.”

Thomas More improved to 6-0 last week with a 24-6 victory over Saint Vincent in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. The Saints, who lead the PAC in rushing offense (235.0) just ahead of the Bison, pounded out 305 yards on the ground compared to just 26 for SVC, which led to a massive advantage in time of possession (35:01-24:59). Both Kendall Owens (120) and Domonique Hayden (115) went over 100 yards and the TMC defense picked off two passes and had five sacks.

Containing the Saints offense, which is scoring a PAC-high 36.2 points per game, starts with slowing down the running attack. While Bethany boasts junior RB Eric Walker (New Brighton, Pa.), who is second in the league with 718 rushing yards, and Grimard, who is third with 660, Thomas More can counter with dynamic backfield of Haydon (606 yards, 12 TDs), Owens (371, three TDs) and QB Robert Kues (248, three TDs). In the passing game, Kues is completing 59.8 percent of this throws for 833 yards and six touchdowns.

“You have to commit to stop the run, although just because you say it doesn’t mean it will happen,” said Weaver. “It’s also tricky against the option like they run because of play action. They get you playing downhill, then you miss a key and they put guys in positions to make plays. But if you can take the run away, you can put them in predictable third downs, which is the only time they don’t look comfortable. But that cut-up on film is very short, so it doesn’t happen often.

“You also have to keep them from making big plays, which, like stopping their running game, is far easier to say than do,” said Weaver. “Owens is capable of going the distance every time he touches it and they have a lot of threats who also have that ability.”

Thomas More’s defense also sits atop the PAC rankings in nearly every major category, ranking first in scoring (11.8), total defense (252.8) and rushing defense (77.0). The Saints also boast the best pass rush in the circuit with 28 sacks and have forced 18 turnovers, the most in the league. The pass rush is led by DE Jay Volker with a conference-high seven sacks, while DT Tyler Owens has made 12 tackles-for-loss, also tops in the PAC. According to Weaver, the key to moving the football against the Saints lies up front.

“Blocking them is the biggest challenge and it’s a two-fold problem,” said Weaver. “Actually blocking their players is difficult, but so is blocking against their schemes because they show multiple looks and can bring multiple pressures.

“We have a rule that we don’t get sacked, but they had seven sacks on us last year and lead the conference again this year,” said Weaver. “It’s tough blocking just their down linemen, but they also find ways to guys free runs at the quarterback. Our offensive line will need to have good communication with each other and with the coaches when they come off so we can make the right play call. And when we are challenged to beat a guy up front, we have to win it.”

When Weaver took the reins to the Bison program five years ago, the program was coming off three consecutive one-win seasons and hadn’t played a meaningful game this late in the season since 2001. While he agrees this is the biggest game in his tenure on the Bethany sideline, as a victory would be their first upset of a ranked team since a 27-16 win over #19 Carnegie Mellon in 2000 and vault them into a first place in the conference, he is also keeping it in perspective in terms of the program’s development.

“I would say this is the biggest game in our time here,” said Weaver. “We’ve been talking about that the last couple years that the next step in our progression is to be playing meaningful games in late October and early November. Now we get to find out if we are capable of winning one.

“But we don’t want to look at this like this game will define our program,” said Weaver. “We have nothing to lose, so we want our guys to play loose, have a blast and enjoy the moment. The last time we had this kind of opportunity was against W&J earlier this season and we didn’t rise to the challenge. But we’re a different team now, so we’ll see what happens Saturday.”