By Justin Zackal
There’s a lot to say about the 11 PAC football teams as they enter the 2016 season. The soothsayers who participated in the preseason poll pretty much recreated last year’s standings, but for the following exercise we’ll let an optimist, the statistics and each head coach have their say about the teams:
THOMAS MORE (11-1, 8-0 PAC in 2015)
Optimist Says: For the seventh time in the last eight years, the Saints are defending at least a share of the PAC title. Only two teams came within two touchdowns of the Saints last year, one of which was an overtime loss to Wabash in the second round of the NCAA playoffs. Thomas More should only get better as second-year head coach Regis Scafe puts more of his fingerprints on a team that sure didn’t seem like it was unfamiliar with a new coaching staff last year.
Statistics Say: Thomas More outscored opponents by an average of 48.6 to 17.3 last year, including 52.1 to 13.6 through the first nine games.
Coach Says: “We try to stay balanced and we have some good young guys in the program, but (with all-PAC receivers Goose Cohorn and Tyler Vogelpohl graduated) … we’re going to have to do it more by committee.”
WASHINGTON & JEFFERSON (8-2, 6-2 PAC)
Optimist Says: W&J won eight games last year and head coach Mike Sirianni still called it a disappointment, lamenting that his team did not get better during the season. After stewing all offseason, during which he hired a new strength coach, Sirianni has his team’s attention. The Presidents have had too much success (nine wins per season in 13 years under Sirianni and 23 PAC titles in 32 years) to let this program slip any further.
Statistics Say: Senior quarterback Pete Coughlin completed 71 percent of his passes last year, leading all of Division III and setting W&J and PAC records for a season. He led the PAC with 302.3 passing yards per game (25 TDs, 7 INTs).
Coach Says: “(Coughlin) gives us a chance to beat anyone in our league because of what he can do with his feet. Some of our best plays I just let him go, (just) running around, see what you can do. He’s a special type of player.”
CASE WESTERN RESERVE (7-3, 6-2 PAC)
Optimist Says: The Spartans went from 3-7 in 2014 to 7-3 last year under head coach Greg Debeljak, and this year they return 13 starters, including eight all-PAC players. They have six offensive linemen who have starting experience protecting first-team all-PAC quarterback Rob Cuda. Only losing to Thomas More by four points last year, Case showed how close it is to dethroning the Saints.
Statistics Say: Cuda ranked ninth in the nation last year with 334.6 total yards per game, leading the Spartans with 2,631 passing yards (28 TDs, 5 INTs) and 715 rushing yards.
Coach Says: “You can get caught up in the numbers and how many people we have back. We have an excellent quarterback coming back. We try to stress to the kids all year, it’s not going to happen just because we were good last year.”
WESTMINSTER (9-2, 7-1 PAC)
Optimist Says: If Westminster is considered a sleeping giant, with six NAIA national championships before joining NCAA Division III 16 years ago, then last year the Titans woke up with their most wins since 1997. Third-year head coach Scott Benzel won’t let them doze off after one season, not with 16 starters returning, including the team’s leading passer (Paul Columbo), rusher (Dominique McKinley) and receiver (Jemetrius Bentley).
Statistics Say: Westminster’s defense, which returns seven starters, led the PAC last year in scoring defense (16.7 points per game) and total defense (257.0 yards per game).
Coach Says: “(The older players) need to teach these guys coming in this is how you play college football, this is how you prepare and this is what you need to do to be successful.”
CARNEGIE MELLON (8-3, 6-2 PAC)
Optimist Says: The Tartans enter the season with a seven-game win streak, third most in Division III. Under head coach Rich Lackner, they’ll learn from last year’s 1-3 start. CMU also has three d3football.com preseason All-Americans: junior safety Drew Fitzmorris, junior running back Sam Benger and senior defensive end Brian Khoury. The rest of the PAC has one (W&J’s Coughlin).
Statistics Say: Benger led the nation with 2,092 rushing yards, averaging 190.2 yards per game while becoming the 21st player in Division III history to reach the 2,000-yard plateau.
Coach Says: “It says a lot about the character of our kids and the quality of our assistant coaches to turn things around and win six in a row. We hope to have a better start to the 2016 campaign than we had last year. A lot will depend on how that offensive line shapes up (three starters lost).”
BETHANY (5-5, 4-4 PAC)
Optimist Says: The Bison were supposed to be better than a .500 team last year, but, still, 11 wins in a two-year span hasn’t happened at Bethany since 2000-01. Bethany hasn’t had a losing PAC record since 2012, the year before fourth-year head coach Bill Garvey took over the program.
Statistics Say: Senior running back Jalen Holmes ranked second in the PAC in rushing last year (135.3 per game, 6.0 per carry) with a school single-season record 1,353 rushing yards, but Bethany will need him to help control possession after the Bison were third-worst in the PAC in time possession (28:09 per game) to go with a PAC-low 13 forced turnovers.
Coach Says: “We’re definitely going to go through (Jalen). … The biggest thing we need to work on as a program is our consistency throughout a 10-game season.”
SAINT VINCENT (4-6, 3-5 PAC)
Optimist Says: So Saint Vincent didn’t see a four-win improvement like it did from 2013 (0-10) to 2014 (4-6), but the Bearcats should improve this year with five new assistant coaches on third-year head coach Ron Dolciato’s staff, including defensive coordinator Shawn Rohrer for his second stint at Saint Vincent after spending the last five years running W&J’s defense.
Statistics Say: Senior running back Shavonta Craft scored a team-high eight rushing touchdowns last year with 124 total touches (103 carries, 21 receptions) for 670 yards (437 rush, 233 receiving).
Coach Says: “Well, I should give (Shavonta) the ball more than I did last year … the more he gets the ball the better he gets.”
WAYNESBURG (3-7, 2-6 PAC)
Optimist Says: Even though last year was Waynesburg’s worst record since 2001, you could have expected a lull with a true freshman, quarterback Jake Dougherty, starting at the most important position. Head coach Rick Shepas admitted that they were patient to develop their signal-caller, not to “throw him to the wolves early on” and that they “played close to the vest with him.” Last year was a reboot and the Yellow Jackets should soon get back to averaging more than eight wins a season like they did the previous three years.
Statistics Say: Dougherty averaged 187.2 passing yards per game with 19 TDs and 12 interceptions.
Coach Says: “(Jake) developed exactly the way we wanted him to and I think we took some chances as we finished the season with him. His development is right on where we want him to be. The biggest thing for us is we’re going to be able to surround him with much more talent and I think that’s going to be the most significant thing that could change for us.”
GENEVA (2-8, 1-7 PAC)
Optimist Says: Geneva keeps trending downward each year (5-5 in 2013, 3-7 in 2014 and 2-8 in 2015), but the Golden Tornadoes have stability in 24th-year head coach Geno DeMarco to reverse their fortunes. They also have a first-team all-PAC linebacker as the backbone of their defense in Jimmy Quinlan (99 tackles in 2015).
Statistics Say: Geneva ranked in the top half of the PAC in total defense (389.9 yards per game) last year, but its offense couldn’t move the ball, ranking 10th (296.1).
Coach Says: “I know a lot of people think we are dead but I will go on record saying we’re not dead yet.”
THIEL (2-8, 1-7 PAC)
Optimist Says: Having an experienced quarterback affects what your team can do — just ask Waynesburg — and Thiel has a good one in senior Ryan Radke. His athletic ability will allow the team to accelerate its capabilities as first-year head coach Dan Blume gets acclimated.
Statistics Say: Radke is already Thiel’s all-time leader in career total offense (6,108 yards) after ranking fifth in the PAC last year with 2,129 yards (151.8 passing average, 61.1 rushing average).
Coach Says: “Ultimately, we are going to fit our scheme and our system to what our players do well. Coming in, Ryan Radke is a dynamic player and he’s arguably our best football player, so the first thing we wanted to do as a staff is find ways to stress teams with his athletic ability.”
GROVE CITY (0-10, 0-8 PAC)
Optimist Says: Only one way to go, right? Well, you could have said that last year, but the Wolverines didn’t win a game for a second straight year. However, this year is different because the program finally belongs to first-year head coach Andrew DiDonato, who was the offensive coordinator/head-coach-in-waiting last year. The transition is complete; time to rebuild.
Statistics Say: Grove City was either 10th or 11th in the PAC in the major team categories last year except pass offense (221.1 per game, 6th) and pass defense (218.0, 5th), but that’s mostly because the Wolverines were playing from behind and opponents were protecting leads.
Coach Says: “We have a bold vision of what we want to do, but it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a process.