The first Stetson football season since 1956 reaches its midway point this weekend when the Hatters plays host to Dayton on Saturday.
Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. at Spec Martin Stadium in DeLand. Tickets are still available and can be purchased online at GoHatters.com/tix or by calling (386) 738-HATS.
Stetson comes in on the heels of a 35-15 loss at defending Pioneer Football league co-champion Butler last Saturday in Indianapolis. While there were many positives to take from the contest, especially on the defensive side of the ball, head coach Roger Hughes and the team left the Butler Bowl with a bitter taste in their mouths due to the loss.
Stetson hopes some of that momentum will carry over against the Flyers, a 3-2 team with losses only on the road against No. 24 Youngstown State and at home in league play against Marist. Dayton has been one of the country's most consistent winners at the Football Championship Subdivision level, its .757 winning percentage since 2000 ranking third in the nation behind only Harvard and Montana.
Dayton enters the contest on the heels of a 40-8 win last week over Davidson, one in which running back Connor Kacsor ran for 244 yards and a pair of scores to earn PFL Offensive Player of the Week honors.
“They’re a good team,” Hughes said. “They’re big and physical up front, defensively. They’re not as complex or as blitzing as Butler was, but clearly they have good players. Their corners are good players. Offensively, they’ve got a good running back and a good wide receiver.
“They have an edge in experience on us, like everyone does. You hope we can gain experience so that we can close the gap. They’ll be all we can handle.”
While the record at the midway point for Stetson (1-4 overall, 0-2 PFL) is not sterling and four wins short of what an exacting coach would like to see, signs of encouragement abound all over the field for a team almost entirely composed for freshmen. One thing the Hatters have not lacked thus far is fight.
“We have played hard the whole game,” Hughes said. “Even in the San Diego game, which was not competitive, I thought our effort was good. We didn’t always play right all of the time, but our effort was good. I think they’ve practiced hard all year. Regardless of the disappointments they’ve had, they haven’t let it affect them that much.
“I do think we are improving as a team. We just have to continue to stress the fundamentals and make sure that as a coaching staff, we don't try to do too much too quickly. Overall, am I pleased? Intellectually, probably. Emotionally, I want to be better than we are right now and I want it yesterday.”
One hidden gem for the team has been the punting of James LaGamma. In addition to his more visible work as the team’s extra point and field goal kicker, he has helped put the Hatters in great position with his directional punting. While LaGamma’s individual punting average may be average, factors beyond the mere length of the kick, like height and location, have helped Stetson rank 32nd nationally in net punting.
This ability, and its impact, was on full display at Butler where LaGamma averaged 43.2 yards on his six punts while only one of the six was returned, that being for three years. That meant a 42.7-yard average switch in field position every time the Hatters were forced to punt. Butler did not score on any of its six possessions which followed a LaGamma punt.
“James LaGamma is a weapon,” Hughes said. “LaGamma has done a great job of punting the ball into area where we’re getting very few returns and we’re giving offenses long fields to have to try and score on. That certainly helps your defense.
“He has a very good understanding of football. He understands that it isn’t about how long his average is but that placement of the ball is every bit as important. He has done a great job placing the ball where there can’t be a return or kicking it out of bounds.
“It’s about the net. It’s not about averaging 56 yards per punt if you're giving up 20 yards a return. He’s humble enough to understand that sometimes his average is going to take a hit to place the ball where he needs to. He's willing to do that and, frankly, it takes a lot of pride in placing the ball inside the 10.”
Not surprising, given the complete lack of experience that comes with the Hatters’ youth, one position that has been inconsistent is the most multi-faceted one, quarterback. Ryan Tentler has started all five games both due to game plan and performance. Jonathan Jerozal has seen action in four of the five games as well.
Jerozal received the bulk of the snaps last week, completing 11-of-15 passes (73.3-percent) for 104 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. The two quarterbacks combined for 106 yards rushing on 17 carries, a sum hindered by sack yardage lost counting against the quarterback’s rushing total in the NCAA.
“Both of them understand that it’s going to be competition throughout,” Hughes said. “Both are going to play in games. Both are getting better at what they do but neither has been as consistent as they need to be for championship football. Until someone steps in and becomes consistent, we’re going to work both of them.”
In Stetson’s offense, the quarterback has to be a dual threat, using both his arm and his legs to have success.
“We’re an offense that requires our quarterback to run. It’s probably nuts to think you can go through the whole season without one of them getting nicked up. Long range, it’s better to have two guys who can get into your offense and not see any drop off.
“They also know that if they’re pulled out of a game, it doesn’t mean they’ll never see the field again. That gives them the confidence to take risks and throw the ball and not be afraid to make a mistake. I try not to pull them out if they make one mistake, nor do I try to bury them if they make two or three in a game. In most instances I’ve returned to the quarterback who started or sometimes I’ve flipped them twice. It’s the same as any other position. If two guys deserve to play and one is not separating himself, both are going to get opportunities.”
Tentler has done so much running this fall that, out of the state of Florida's 11 Division I teams, he is the only player to lead his squad in both rushing and passing. His performances this year have been highlighted by a momentum-switching 57-yard scramble at Butler, Stetson’s longest offensive play of the year.
Tentler and Jerozal’s work with option plays has been a bright spot of the first half for the team.
“We’ve become much better than I expected running the option,” Hughes said when assessing first half surprises. “It’s emerging as a more prominent part of our offense than what I originally anticipated.”
One area of the field where things have been steady is on the offensive line. The combination of left tackle Sean Gannon, left guard Patrick Fogarty, center Fletcher Eldemire, right guard Alan Hinderleider and right tackle Matt Wawrzyniak have started each of the team’s first five games, and rarely subbed off of the field except for late in lopsided contests.
The unit has done fine work protecting Tentler and Jerozal as the Hatters have been sacked just seven times in five games, ranking 33rd in the nation. There is still work to be done for the unit at the center of an offense which is averaging just 269.8 yards per game, but things seem to be on the right track in the trenches.
“Most of them are older guys,” Hughes said of one likely difference maker for the five starters. “In the offensive and defensive line, generally, that physiological development, that year older difference, helps their size, strength and understanding of what we’re doing. That’s what’s given them a leg up at that position. It’s probably more of an advantage to be older and experienced than at others.”
Still, having the five starters play as much as they do, series-after-series, is not an optimal situation. Hughes sees some possible daylight on the horizon however, starting with the game at Marist on Oct. 26.
“The nice thing about having an off week next week is that we have two JV games,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll see the younger guys show that they have improved and we can rotate people in (to the varsity). We’d love to find a rotation of eight or nine guys that we can put in there with no drop off, but right now we haven’t sensed that. To give us the best chance to win, those five iron men have had to go at it.”
Hopefully some boisterous Hatter fans will be joining their team as they “go at it” with the Flyers on Saturday.