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Sept. 2 - BETHANY, W.Va. – The new season for the Bethany football team kicks off Saturday when BC hosts #24 Otterbein (Ohio) College, an NCAA Playoff team a year ago, at Bison Stadium at 1 p.m.

Bethany, who was predicted to finish sixth in the PAC this year at the conference’s Media Day, is coming off a 3-7 season in 2008, but returns 14 starters to mix with a freshmen class of more than 100. Although sporting a roster of more than 150 through camp meant a lot of extra work, fourth-year BC head coach Tim Weaver said they accomplished a lot.

“I thought camp was good and we worked hard,” said Weaver, who is 11-19 after three seasons at the helm. “For the most part, we were able to avoid key injuries. We also had a ton of guys get a lot of evaluation reps on defense. We think we’ll be much better there, but very young.”

Youth will definitely be served on the defensive side of the ball this season for the Green and White, who ranked last in the PAC in nearly every category in 2008. There will be many new faces trying to stop Otterbein Saturday, which four freshmen and two sophomores who saw limited time last year in the projected starting line-up and five more freshmen in top reserve roles. It’s not a surprise to Weaver that this many new players will see time however.

“It’s more relief than surprise that this many new guys will be playing this quickly because it shows our hard work in recruiting paid off in adding players we think can help us get significantly better,” said Weaver. “We are faster, bigger and have some guys with really good football instincts. All 11 spots were open coming into camp and we think we’re better at all 11 positions, even with some returning guys because they were pushed hard and had to earn their job back.”

There aren’t a lot of adjustments needed to the high-flying Bison offense, which set school-records last year for points (280) and passing yards (2,548) and has eight starters returning. Among those back include sophomore QB Chad Smith (Washington, Pa.), who threw for 2,302 yards and 16 TDs as a freshman, sophomore RB Eric Walker (New Brighton, Pa.), who ran for 714 yards and 10 scores, senior WR Matt Cruse (Naples, Fla./Barron Collier), who already owns the Bethany career TD reception record (21) and senior TE Jorge Laboy (New York, N.Y./Central Park East), who was a Second Team Preseason All-American after catching 43 passes last year.

With all that talent returning at the skill positions, as well as four veteran offensive linemen back in the fold, Weaver said the biggest surprise was the development of senior TE Casey Elson (Schnecksville, Pa./Parkland), which will allow the dangerous BC offense to throw even more looks at opposing defenses.

“Elson has gone through two position changes, switching from tight end to defense end and now back to tight end,” said Weaver. “He started to understand everything in the spring and it just carried through to camp. His development now gives us the flexibility to go with two tight ends sets. With an athlete like Laboy, we could now line him up anywhere to show as many different looks as possible.”

The Bison hope to have the look of a 1-0 team after Saturday as opposed to last year, when they began the season with a 40-7 loss at Otterbein in the opener. A sloppy first half which had six turnovers saw the Cardinals leading 12-7 in the second quarter. Twice in the last five minutes of the period, BC was inside the Otterbein 35, but threw interceptions to end their scoring chances and the hosts maintained a five-point lead at the break. The Cardinals then scored on their first four possessions of the second half to pull away for the triumph.

That win the in the season opener was the springboard for Otterbein to post their best season in school history. They went on to finish the campaign 9-2 and earned a bid to the NCAA Playoffs for the first time in school history.

Fourteen starters are back from that playoff team, led by quarterback Jack Rafferty. The 6-0, 200-pound signal caller was one of 10 finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, which is presented to the top Division III player in the country. He threw for 1,991 yards and 22 TDs while getting picked off just five times and added seven rushing touchdowns.

There is plenty of talent around Rafferty on the Otterbein offense, led by a strong one-two punch in the backfield of Colton Coy (846 yds., 13 TDs) and Eric Yates (659 yds., nine TDs). Rafferty’s favorite target is back too in WR Ryan Rowley, who pulled in 56 passes, 39 more than the next highest total by a Cardinal receiver, for 802 yards and seven scores. Up front, the line features two seniors and three juniors who average 284 pounds per man.

“With Rafferty, Coy, Rowley and the big o-line, this will be a very stiff test for our defense,” said Weaver. “They have good players at every position, show a lot of different formations and are led by a QB who is a threat to throw, run for yards and scramble around to make a play downfield. We won’t be able to match them with different formations, so we’re going to have to keep it really simple and just execute Saturday.”

Defensively, the Cardinals did allow 208 passing yards per game last year, but also picked off 15 passes and had 34 quarterback sacks. Headlining the front four is DE Will Longsdorf, who had 59 tackles and four sacks last year. An athletic secondary is paced by SS Justin Hochstetler, the top returning tackler with 63 stops last year, and CB Chad Woodfork, who made 49 hits and snared a team-high four interceptions.

“Their defense was about as good as we played last year,” said Weaver. “They are big up front, have active linebackers and are aggressive in the secondary. They bring just enough pressure to make you prepare and worry about it. Overall, they are a really good, solid football team with an established system and a strong belief in what in they’re doing.”

Keys to winning the first week can always be hard to pinpoint because so many variables can become involved, especially turnovers. Taking care of the ball is priority one for the Bison offense on Saturday, while the defense will also be aiming to keep miscues down.

“Keys to week one are always to minimize mistakes and protect the football,” said Weaver. “Last year is a prime example, as we gave them five possessions last year and they are more than good enough to win without those. Our main chance to win is to protect the ball.

“On the other side, we need to minimize missed tackles and big plays,” said Weaver. “We need to keep players on their feet because Otterbein is very good at getting people off their feet in space. We can’t do that and focus on making plays.”