The football team (3–1, 1–1) looks to rebound from a shocking defeat to Hartwick College, as it hosts Alfred University (3–1, 1–0) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Butterfield Stadium.
It’s Homecoming weekend for the Bombers, which will play their first game at Butterfield Stadium in more than a month. The Blue and Gold won two out of three games on the road in that span, losing the last one 21–9 to Hartwick College. This was the first time they lost to the Hawks since 2007.
They will play an Alfred University team, which has won its last two games, each in overtime. Two weeks ago, the Saxons rallied from a 28–0 deficit on the road against SUNY-Brockport to defeat the Golden Eagles 34–28. In that game, freshman quarterback Dominic Scavo, who transferred from Ithaca College last year, was benched and replaced by freshman Tyler Johnson. Johnson led the Saxons to a 39–33 win against Buffalo State College last week, throwing two touchdown passes.
Though the Saxons have not lost to Ithaca since 2009, Bombers head coach Mike Welch downplayed this fact, saying each team is new every year.
Fine Tuning a Stout Defense
The M.O. for the Bombers this season is that its defense will have to lead the team for it to have any chance of success. The Bombers trailed 21–0 to the Hawks early in the third quarter, but the defense did not allow a first down for the remainder of the game and forced two turnovers.
Despite an improved second-half performance, the defense struggled to stop the pass in the first half, letting Hawks sophomore quarterback John Garcia throw for more than 170 yards and a touchdown. The Bombers’ secondary had problems dealing with long passes, and this was evident during the Hawks’ first scoring drive as it gave up three completions of 15 yards or more. The South Hill squad’s pass rush also struggled, only sacking Garcia once. Defensive Coordinator Mark McDonough said the pass defense struggled because of poor pass coverage in the secondary and a lack of execution with the defensive line.
“We had guys coming to the quarterback who didn’t get there. We missed in some instances, but I think we just have to do a better job executing.” McDonough said.
The Bombers’ secondary has an opportunity to have a standout game this Saturday. Scavo and Johnson have thrown eight interceptions combined in four games, and the secondary has recorded an interception in each game so far.
Injecting Some Life into the Offense
The Bombers offense has grown frighteningly stagnant in the last three games. It hasn’t recorded more than 300 total offensive yards in each of those games, scoring just 81 points in that span. While junior running back Tommy Pedula had a good game rushing for 68 yards, senior Rakim Jones did not record a single carry. That will change this Saturday, as Pedula was not at practice and will miss the game. Freshman Tene Samuto will also see some action, but Jones will need to be heavily used if the Blue and Gold want to establish the running game.
There is greater uncertainty about its passing game, beginning with the status of senior quarterback Phil Neumann, who left last week’s game with an elbow injury, and junior Tom Dempsey, who threw two fourth-quarter interceptions in replace. Neumann has dressed for practice but has not yet thrown a pass, as Dempsey has handled the first team repetitions for Neumann.
Welch said Neumann can play even though he did not take any reps this week. Regardless of who is the quarterback, the onus will be on the offense to create scoring opportunities off sustained drives — and eventually capitalize on them. Dempsey said the passing attack has not been able to capitalize on such opportunities this year.
“It’s really just about sustaining drives,” Dempsey said. “[We need to] complete passes to move the chains. It’s not about big 40 passes or short ones, just finding the open receiver and moving the chains.”
The offense needs to stretch the field both on the ground and in the air. In order to do this, the Blue and Gold needs to take risks with their play calling. The Bombers will be a team that manages the ball on offense, relying on long, methodical scoring drives, which become a euphemism for slow when it is not effective.
Another Unpredictable Slate of Conference Games
The Empire 8 is again shaping up to be brazenly unpredictable. Though the Salisbury University Sea Gulls recorded an impressive win against Utica College last week, their early season struggles prove they aren’t juggernauts. Their opponents this week, Buffalo State College, scored quickly, which can help offset the Sea Gulls’ ability to control the time of possession with the option offense. Meanwhile, St. John Fisher College nearly lost at home to Frostburg State University last week.
The Cardinals travel to Hartwick this Saturday fully aware of the Hawks’ capabilities. For Hartwick, this weekend is homecoming and an opportunity to take sole possession of first place of the Empire 8 — not bad for a team unanimously picked to finish last in the Preseason Poll.
For comprehensive coverage of the game Saturday, follow @IthacanSports and @Christian_Araos.