After a breakthrough 8-2 season last year, the Allegheny football team is poised to resume and build upon their seasoned offensive and defensive units as they start their campaign for an NCAC championship Saturday against Bethany.
With key players to their third-ranked defense and fast-paced, explosive passing offense returning in their senior seasons and their nationally recognized kicking game, the Gators believe that they have the foundation in place to make a run at the elite teams in the NCAC.
Leading last year’s highly successful defense is strong safety Sid Facaros, ’11, whose four interceptions last year earned him Allegheny’s only All-NCAC First Team spot. Facaros will prove to be a key factor in the Gator defense, which aims to dictate the game by creating turnovers as opposed to being a lockdown, “steel curtain” type of unit.
“We have a lot of disguises, we’re trying to screw with the quarterback’s mind,” Facaros said. “We’re really trying to play fast football and be a scrappy defense.”
Head Coach Mark Matlak points to the linebackers in addition to the secondary as the strengths of the defensive squad, making the defensive line’s performance the difference maker.
“I think it’s up front, where we lost [defensive linemen] Doug Macik and Nick Silva, where we are trying to figure out pieces to the puzzle to improve” he said.
Offensively, quarterback TJ Salopek, ’11, will be returning for his third consecutive season as starter after ranking second in the conference with 237.4 passing yards per game last year. Though he will be without two of his favorite targets this year, look for Salopek to continue to make plays from the pocket, especially to the versatile Terry Hartford, ’11, who was seventh in the conference in catches and reception yards per game, including a 94-yard strike against Denison.
Despite their aerial prowess, the Gators struggled to run the ball last season, ranking ninth out of the 10 teams, and center Keith Beach, ’11, is very aware of how an improved running game will stabilize their attack and keep defenses apprehensive before every snap.
“Most of the teams we will be going against have top-of-the-line defenses and if they just have to defend for the pass, then that makes their job easier,” Beach said.
Beach expects his unit to be more hard-nosed than last year in order to open up bigger holes for the running backs. The return of senior running back Matt Deivert, who missed eight games due to injury last season, should also help out the Gator rushing attack.
Despite the strong foundations on both sides of the ball, Matlak pointed to the special teams duo of kicker Ryan Zipf, ’12, and punter Andrew DeJong, ’12, as the biggest strength of the team this year. Zipf is on the 2010 watch list for the Fred Mitchell Award, which goes to the nation’s top placekicker in Division III. He was a finalist for the award last year after topping the NCAC in field goals made and field goal percentage.
DeJong was no slouch either, as he led the conference in punting average with 39.7 yards per punt.
Matlak believes that having strong legs on special teams opens up more possibilities for the offense and give the defense better starting spots. With Zipf, the team does not have to drive it far into the red zone in order to score, while DeJong can use directional punting to really pin down opposing offenses.
The Gators had a chance to get accustomed to game speed in their scrimmage last Friday against Thiel. The offense recognized a few fixable kinks and the defense was firing on all cylinders despite implementing a relatively basic strategy to avoid revealing too much on film.
“We definitely kept some things secret so other teams couldn’t see it,” Facaros said.
Hopefully their concealment efforts will pay off Saturday when the Gators travel to Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va for a 1:30 p.m. matchup against the Bison. It will be the first of two non-conference games (the second is against Carnegie Mellon) before an early-season showdown with last year’s NCAC champion Wittenberg.