March 30, 2023
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Four Downs: Bombers face must-win E8 matchup with Fisher

The football team (6–2, 5–2) travels to Rochester, New York, to take on the 15th-ranked St. John Fisher Cardinals (7–1, 5–1) in a winner-take-all matchup at 1 p.m. on Nov. 8.

All or Nothing

The winner of Saturday’s game clinches a spot in the NCAA Tournament. While the scenario for the victor is equal, the scenario for the loser is not. Though a second loss would put the Cardinals on the bubble, their playoff chances are helped out by the fact that they have made the NCAA quarterfinals in each of the past two playoff appearances as a Pool C team, and by the NCAA’s decision to not grant automatic bids to the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference and the Southern Athletic Association, which leaves the total number of at-large bids to eight. A two-loss Cardinal team would have a legitimate chance at earning an at-large bid, a three-loss Bomber team would not.

Three-loss teams have never received an at-large bid under the tournament’s current format, and the South Hill squad simply does not have the resume to change that status quo. If its two losses had been against teams that have a significantly better record than the 9–8 combined record Buffalo State College and Frostburg State University had, then there could be a conversation about a three-loss Bomber team contending for an at-large. With that addressed, the scenario for the Blue and Gold is clear: win at Growney Stadium for the first time since 2002, or be eliminated from playoff contention.

Running Back Situation Remains Despite Oliver’s Success

It remains to be seen whether or not the Bombers captured lightning in a bottle by converting junior wide receiver Josh Oliver to a running back despite his 166-yard performance on Nov. 1 against SUNY Brockport, who give up an average of nearly 177 rushing yards per game. Fisher’s run defense is the best in the conference despite giving up 312 yards against Salisbury University on Oct. 4. The Bombers need a good complement to Oliver in the backfield to better attack an extremely athletic and disciplined Cardinals defense that makes it difficult for opposing teams to establish the run.

That is why the Blue and Gold will need a running back who can break tackles inside the box and force the Cardinals to put more players than the six players that are there by design in its 3–3–5 defense. Freshman running back Tristan Brown is the solution to this problem, but a lingering left-ankle injury renders his status for Saturday’s game to be uncertain at best. Brown aggravated the injury in practice Tuesday and has been limited throughout the week. While Brown said he will play on Saturday, how effective he can be remains to be seen.

“I feel good,” Brown said. “[The plan is] for the ankle to hold up.”

Forcing Mistakes

As discussed in the feature, the Bombers secondary faces its biggest test against a prolific and possession-based Fisher passing attack. In this aspect, they are very similar to the Bombers passing offense. Both teams prefer shorter pass plays that allow their wide receivers to pick up yards after the catch. Since both teams will pick their moments to throw downfield, the chances for opposing defenses to force turnovers are slim, hence the seven combined interceptions between Bombers senior quarterback Tom Dempsey and Cardinals senior quarterback Tyler Fenti. Senior strong safety Noah Poskanzer said the Bomber defense will have to force the Cardinals into making mistakes.

“We have to disguise our coverages,” Poskanzer said. “We have to bait him with the receivers to make him think we’re doing something that we’re not. We have to get in his head.”

Since neither team really commits unforced errors all too often, the onus falls on the defense to decide how aggressively they want to be making plays. In last year’s meeting, the Bombers forced five Cardinal turnovers and were able to hold on for a 25–22 win at Butterfield Stadium. The Bombers’ 16 takeaways are middle-of-the-road in Division III, while Fisher’s 12 wins are also not that impressive. When there are two teams who do not force a lot of mistakes from the other and do not make mistakes themselves, tension ensues because turnovers should be few and far between and can be so pivotal. Such was the case last year when Cardinals running back Cody Miller ’14 fumbled in the end zone providing the difference in the game. With each of the last three meetings decided by four points or less and a place in the NCAA Tournament at stake, Saturday has the potential to be a tension-filled game.

Regional Rankings

Since Saturday’s game decides the Empire 8, there is no need to look at the other games in the conference. Instead, we’ll look at the first release of the regional rankings by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. The Bombers are 10th in the East Region rankings. This does not bode well for them in two ways. First, if they win on Saturday and earn the automatic bid to the playoffs, they are currently behind the potential champions of four conferences in the rankings: the Liberty League winner, Hobart College or St. Lawrence University; the Middle Atlantic Conference, Delaware Valley College or Widener University; the New Jersey Athletic Conference, Montclair State University; and the New England Football Conference, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All of these teams would be considered for home games in the first round before the Bombers. Secondly, their low ranking confirms their likely elimination from playoff contention with a loss. The Liberty League loser, the MAC loser, Framingham State College and Lycoming are all at-large teams above them that would be considered for a place in the tournament.

Fisher, at fourth, is likely to have a home game in the playoffs if it wins out. Del Val or Widener will lose, and the Cardinals have a much stronger strength of schedule rating. Their chances at a more favorable bracket increase greatly if St. Lawrence defeats Hobart. If Fisher loses to the Blue and Gold, they immediately fall into the aforementioned moshpit of potential at-large teams, which will mean they will have to sweat out Selection Sunday to find out if they will receive a playoff bid for the second straight year.