The last time the Stetson football team had an open date, it stretched on for 56 years.
Thankfully, it was just a single week off for the 2013 edition of the Hatters as they took a few extra days to assess the state of the reinstated program and also prepare for Saturday's home tilt against Birmingham-Southern.
Kickoff for the game at Spec Martin Memorial Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m. As of Wednesday, fewer than 500 tickets remain available for Saturday’s game, as well as for next week’s Pioneer Football League opener against San Diego.
After splitting the first two contests of the year, more work on splits was in order last weekend. Hatters head coach Roger Hughes made sure to take some time for team bonding and fun during the week off, taking the squad bowling last Saturday morning before giving them an afternoon free to watch other college football games. He also took plenty of time to ensure that his young team, with just two games under its belt, continues to develop.
"Hopefully we improved fundamentally as a team and we hope we're fresh coming out of it," Hughes said of the bye week. "Those are the two main things. We want to be fresh as we really start to get into the meat of our schedule. We have Birmingham-Southern this week and then we go into the conference and we know that it doesn't get any easier any time soon.”
In addition for the time to rest, the Hatters also put in some work.
"It allowed us to go back and get some fundamental things cleaned up. It allowed us to put more time into special teams. It was also nice in that we had a JV game (on Monday at Jacksonville). That allowed some of the younger guys an opportunity to get on the field for some game experience. It allows us another chance for evaluation to see who's progressing and getting better so that we can make the appropriate changes on the depth chart."
One player who has stood out so far has been starting “dawg” safety Donald Payne. The team captain has been named the PFL’s Defensive Player of the Week after each of Stetson’s games this season. Payne leads the squad with 21 tackles overall and boasts a well-rounded stat line that also includes 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
The offense has been keyed by quarterback Ryan Tentler who leads the Hatters in both passing and rushing yards through a pair of games. In fact, Tentler is the only player amongst Florida’s 11 Division I programs to lead his team in both passing and rushing this fall. Helping with the rushing total has been solid protection in front of him. Tentler has not been sacked yet through two games.
Birmingham-Southern, a formidable Division III squad, will bring a 2-0 team south to DeLand. The Panthers averaged 47 points and 441.5 yards of offense over their first two games as BSC dispatched LaGrange and Hendrix. BSC allowed 35 points per game however in winning those two shootouts.
"They're very well coached," Hughes said of the Panthers." They're very disciplined. They aren't one to do a lot of different things, but they do things very well. They execute. Defensively, they don't let you get big chunks of yardage. They make you take it in four, five or six (yards at a time) and see if you're patient enough to do it or if you're methodical enough not to make a mistake.
"Offensively, they're very similar to some of the things we do. You've got to be disciplined. They run option, they run a lot of zone stuff and they throw it around. Anytime you get good athletes in space, it's a challenge. I don't know if our matchups are great. We'll know more once we get near. Clearly they are very sound and well coached."
A couple of things the Hatters have done particularly well through two games are stop opponents from scoring or passing efficiently. Stetson's 11.5 points against is fourth in the nation at the FCS level. The team has also held its foes to an 85.91 efficiency rating that ranks fourth in the nation as well. Stetson has allowed just one passing touchdown this fall while Chris Atkins, Bobby Jakubek and Donald Payne have all recorded an interception for the Hatters.
Seeing the big picture, Hughes gives a share of the credit for this to the Hatters' special teams.
"I think one of the reasons that our defense has the stats they have is that we have not had to defend many short fields," Hughes said. “Our kicking game, with James LaGamma, has been brilliant in placing the ball inside the 15. That just makes a whole different ballgame if your offense has to drive it 85 and 90 yards every time. For us to be able to cope with our inexperience, we have to be able to do those things. We cannot beat ourselves, because other people have plenty of weapons to beat us, if we let them."
Indeed, the Hatters rank a solid 18th nationally in kickoff coverage, yielding just 17.0 yards per return. While the punting averages for LaGamma (38.1 yards) and Eric Fogle (34.7) aren't numbers that leap off of the page, they have done effective work in kicking directionally and high enough to limit returns and maximize field position gains. LaGamma has left five of his 14 punts inside of the 20 and has had four fair caught. Two of Fogle's three punts resulted in a fair catch.
As a result, against Warner, Stetson enjoyed an advantage of 16 yards in average starting field position, inaugurating drives at their own 38 while the Royals lined up at their own 22. The field position stats at Florida Tech were skewed by Stetson's turnover on downs at the FIT seven in the final seconds, but, removing that drive, the Hatters enjoyed a 34-30 field position edge in Melbourne.
Another area of strength has been in turnover margin. The Hatters stand at plus-two, a sum which ranks second in the Pioneer Football League. The Hatters are one of 10 teams nationally to not throw an interception so far in 2013. Individually, Ryan Tentler is one of just six quarterbacks not to be intercepted with at least 48 passing attempts. The importance of the crucial turnover ratio can't be understated with such a young squad.
"We have to do that," Hughes said. "It's something we emphasize as a coaching staff on both sides of the ball. For us to have a chance to win, we have to win the explosive play ratios and we have to win the turnover margin. We have to continue to do that as the competition continues to get better and better and more experienced. We have no chance if we turn it over and give up short fields. I would argue that had we not turned it over in the Florida Tech game, we probably win that game."
The conference season is around the corner, but before the Hatters concern themselves with two-time defending league champion San Diego next week, Birmingham-Southern has their full attention. The lone meeting between the sides, a 19-0 Panthers win in 1931 probably will have no bearing on Saturday night's tilt at Spec Martin Stadium. But, regarding the 2013 edition of Birmingham-Southern's squad, Hughes is impressed with what he as seen through two weeks.
"This week, we're going to be presented with different challenges defensively," he said of BSC. "They have a running quarterback and they do some nice things option-wise. We're going to have to remain disciplined. We didn't really have running quarterbacks the last two teams we played. That adds another dimension. That forces you play more disciplined football.
"They play a lot of split backs, two backs in the backfield. They're similar to what we do offensively. So, it's not like we haven't seen some things, but they're a little more spread out with getting their quarterback on the perimeter.”
Hughes said the Panthers base 4-3 defense, which plays a lot of two deep zone in the secondary, is not fancy, but is effective.
"They're very sound and their kids are well-coached,” Hughes said. “Their kids play very hard. They don't stay blocked very long. And, it's obvious, they've put in a lot of time on special teams."
It all sounds like an entertaining night of football in DeLand is around the corner that Hatter fans will not want to miss.
With ticket supplies rapidly dwindling, fans who hope to attend the game on Saturday night are quickly running out of time. The few remaining tickets are available by visiting GoHatters.com/tix or by calling 386-738-HATS.