Sept. 4 - BETHANY, W.Va. – The Bethany College football team will kick off the 2008 season Saturday when they travel to Westerville, Ohio, to take on Otterbein (Ohio) College in the first-ever meeting between the schools. Kickoff at Otterbein’s Memorial Stadium is slated for 1:30 p.m.
This was the third training camp for the Bison under head coach Tim Weaver, who has led the Green and White to two consecutive 4-6 seasons. It was an odd camp in that Bethany started with 105 players on day one and instead of losing bodies, they actually added two more to the roster by the end. Having the largest roster in more than 30 years was one bright spot for Weaver, although injuries crept up late to dampen a solid training camp.
“It was good to have those numbers in camp because it allowed us to keep guys fresh,” said Weaver. “We did run into some injuries towards the end, which is unfortunate because we won’t be at full strength heading into the first game.”
The Bison offense, which was second in the PAC a season ago in total yards (410.5), brought back nine starters, including two all-conference receivers in senior Taylor McNeil (Old Saybrook, Conn.) and junior Matt Cruse (Naples, Fla./Barron Collier), and four offensive linemen. The one major question mark coming into camp was the quarterback position and after a spirited battle, sophomore Dan Pegg (Uniontown, Pa./Laurel Highlands) emerged as the starter, although a pair of freshmen opened the coaching staff’s eyes.
“We were able to get a whole bunch of guys reps during camp,” said Weaver. “We are going to start Dan and feel very confident in him. He has a strong arm, has really learned the offense over the past year and shows much more poise then you would expect from someone who hasn’t started a game in college.
“In addition to Dan, two other freshmen really impressed us in Chad Smith (Washington, Pa.) and Jeff Joyce (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin),” said Weaver. “Chad has the best arm of the group, is very confident and we’re looking forward to his future. And if Jeff isn’t the best, he’s one of the top two or three athletes on the team right now. We feel we have to find ways to get the ball in his hands and will get him involved in the return game.”
With every camp, there can be surprises throughout. If there was one in the Bison’s preseason, it’s that there were no disappointing developments through the last three weeks.
“The one surprise we had on offense is that there were no bad surprises,” said Weaver. “We thought Eric Walker (freshman RB from New Brighton, Pa.) was a good player when we recruited him. He proved it and will play right away. Our deep receiving core came back ready and looks good. All the starters on the offensive line picked up right where they left off.
“That being said, the one spot you would like to have experience at is QB,” said Weaver. “A big key for us Saturday is getting the running game going and let Dan get in a rhythm. We have to make good decisions to help him make good decisions.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Bethany brought back three starters in the secondary and three on the line, but graduated all three starting linebackers from last year. The fight for those starting spots was vigorous and there will be at least five different players seeing time Saturday, which includes sophomores Tom Kisner (Killingsworth, Conn./Xavier) and Ryan Saunders (Youngstown, Ohio/Liberty) and freshman David Grillo (Charleroi, Pa.).
“Although we feel we’re a little more athletic and faster at linebacker, we haven’t had anyone distance themselves from the pack, so a lot of guys will be playing,” said Weaver. “With guys like Ryan Saunders, Tom Kisner, David Grillo, Ron Ermlick (Charleroi, Pa.) and Ryan Sipe (Pittsburgh, Pa./Penn Hills), we feel they all give us something. They also all play a role in special teams, so we’ll keep them fresh and see if we can settle on guys as the weeks go by.”
The biggest surprises on the defense came in the emergence of the aforementioned Kisner, as well as a strong group of freshmen on the defensive line, which was a priority in recruiting after Bethany was ranked eighth in the PAC a year ago in rushing defense (227.2).
“I don’t think anyone on our staff would have thought last spring that Kisner would be running our defense,” said Weaver. “But he had a solid spring and a very good training camp. Tom is very even-keel and tough to rattle, which is the type of player you want out there when things start happening.
“We also feel we hit the jackpot in recruiting on the defensive line,” said Weaver. “We have freshmen in Rolland Owens (Wintersville, Ohio/Steubenville), Bobby McConnell (Valley Grove, W.Va./Wheeling Park) and Steve Nesmith (New Brighton, Pa.) who will play this year and there are two or three others we feel will be good players within the next couple years.”
With a good amount of the Bison seeing their first collegiate games Saturday, their opponents will bring an experienced group to the contest. Otterbein went 5-5 overall and 5-4 in the rugged Ohio Athletic Conference last season. This year, the Cardinals return 20 starters overall and are led by veterans at key positions where Bethany is inexperienced, which is quarterback and linebacker. Under center, Jack Rafferty triggers a unit which ranked second in the OAC last year in scoring (28.1) and total yards (381.7). The junior ran for a team-high 10 touchdowns, while also throwing for 1,388 yards and eight more scores.
At middle linebacker for the Cardinals is senior Eric Burnsides, a Second Team All-OAC selection last year. He led the team and ranked seventh in the conference with 80 tackles in ’07. As a unit, the defense limited teams to 132 rushing yards per game last year, but surrendered 277.1 yards and 20 scores through the air.
“We wanted to upgrade our schedule and we did that, because Otterbein is clearly the best team we’ve played in an opener in three years,” said Weaver. “They are big and physical on both sides of the line, their running backs and linebackers are big and they have a whole bunch of experience at key positions. We will have our hands full.”
In addition to the new starters at quarterback and linebacker, Bethany will also have freshmen at kicker in Jeff Krek (Heidelberg, Pa./Chartiers Valley), long snapper in Matt Landowski (New Kensington, Pa./Kiski Area) and punter in Chad Smith. With mistakes so prevalent in an opener even with the most veteran of the teams, Weaver knows the Bison must limit their miscues to have a chance to pull one out Saturday.
“Our keys on offense are no fumbles and make more big plays in the passing game then they do,” said Weaver. “Defensively, we need to minimize missed tackles, which is always tricky in the first game. And on special teams, we have a freshmen kicker and with the exception of holder, the rest of key special teams guys are freshmen. So we are looking to be 100 percent on PATs and short field goals and prioritize ball security and execution.
“Early season games can turn more on a mistake then what someone does right,” said Weaver. “If we minimize those, we will give ourselves a chance to compete.”