The young Stetson football team took some time during a week away from the rigors of Pioneer Football League play last week to take a step back and evaluate where they are at the mid-point of the season.
Those evaluations led the Stetson coaching staff to a return to work on fundamentals as the Hatters prepare to return to action on Saturday at Marist in Poughkeepsie, NY. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. from Tenney Stadium.
The game will be broadcast by the Hatter Sports Network with Matt Musgrove and Steve Ostermann on the call of the game. Fans can tune in to WSBB AM 1230 in New Smyrna Beach or WTJV AM 1490 in DeLand. The game will also be available via video web stream through Hatter Vision on GoHatters.com.
If the Hatters hope to leave New York with a victory that would snap a five-game losing skid, Stetson coach Roger Hughes said it will take an effort that minimizes the mistakes that have plagued his team.
“First of all, we can’t beat ourselves,” Hughes said. “We have to eliminate turnovers and defensively, we have to be in the right gaps and have no coverage breakdowns. What we have to do is make sure we keep the game close until the fourth quarter to give ourselves a chance to win it. We will do that by playing fundamental football – hanging on to it, catching it when it is thrown to us, blocking the guys you are supposed to and, on the defensive side, no missed tackles.”
In the Hatters’ last game, against Dayton, the team had breakdowns in all three phases of the game, which led to the Flyers building a big early lead. Stetson had three turnovers in the game, allowed 261 yards rushing including several big plays, had 23 missed tackles on defense and allowed 99 yards on punt returns.
The result was short fields for the Flyers, leading to quick and easy early scores.
Hughes said the extra week gave the team and coaches a chance to narrow their focus on the areas that have been the most problematic.
“We went back and looked at all of the things we are doing and tried to condense it down to the salient things we think are not only good for our team right now but, also long term,” Hughes said. “We looked at a lot more situational things. We have emphasized to the players that winning on first down leads to getting manageable third downs, both offensively and defensively.”
Another benefit of the week off was that the Hatters were able to play a pair of junior varsity games, which provided opportunity for some players to show that they are ready to contribute on Saturdays.
Two of the players who have made a move up the depth chart are offensive linemen Griffin Vari and Blake Manning. Both are scheduled to make their first starts this weekend. Vari will start at left tackle while Manning will go at right guard. They will join with regulars Patrick Fogarty at left guard, Fletcher Eldemire at center and Matt Wawrzyniak at right tackle.
“The fact that we had a couple of JV games sandwiched into the bye week allowed some of our less experienced players to earn their way onto the bus,” Hughes said. “A couple of them did that.
“We are trying to find the right formula. The kids who moved up the depth chart have earned their way. It is not always the fact that someone is doing something wrong that gets them demoted. It may just be the fact that the guy behind him is doing everything much better.”
Another player who earned his way onto the trip this week is redshirt freshman running back A.J. Washington. During the fall last year, and this past spring, Washington showed signs that he would be a top option at running back. That trend continued when camp started in August before an injury put him on the shelf for the first six games.
Washington showed in the two junior varsity games that he is back to near full strength and ready to help a running game that has struggled to gain traction this year, averaging just 112.2 yards per game, more than 40 of which has come from the quarterbacks.
“I don’t know of any teams that win championships that don’t run the ball effectively,” Hughes said. “A.J. has played in the last two JV games and I thought he improved tremendously. How much we will work him in will depend on how the game goes. In practice, he appears to be back to the level where he was to start the year. If that is the case, then I think he will make the team become better.”
While Washington returns from injury, the Hatters will be without one of their top big play threats this week with receiver and kick returner Terrance Burt out with an injury. His absence means that Chris Crawford will have more pressure on him to give Stetson a home run threat, both offensively and on special teams.
Crawford ranks second on the team in receptions with 16, and leads the team with 196 receiving yards, but has yet to find the end zone. He has also averaged 12.1 yards on eight punt returns. The problem for Crawford, which is not unique to him on the young team, is that he has had some very visible drops.
“I think drops are a combination of mental focus and trying to press too hard to make big plays,” Hughes said. “We have had a lot of dropped balls, and Chris is not the only one responsible for that. Because of Chris’ athletic ability, he tends to get open in big situations and therefore his drops become more magnified.
“No one understands this better than Chris, and no one is working harder to improve those pass-catching skills than he is. If practice is any indication, he has continued to work and continued to get better. Your heart goes out to him because there is no one on this team who works harder or who playing well means more to him than Chris.”
Inconsistency catching the ball, as well as struggles with turnovers and in the running game, has led to some struggles from the Hatters two quarterbacks. Both starter Ryan Tentler and backup Jonathan Jerozal have looked good at times running the offense. But, like most freshmen, there have also been struggles.
Simplifying the plan going into the game, and going back to basics, are two of the things the Stetson coaches have done to give both players a chance to succeed.
“We have gone back to basics from the standpoint of working on fundamentals and footwork,” Hughes said. “We have modified their footwork in order to hopefully make them less anxious throwing the ball. The other thing is that we have reduced the number of passing concepts we are utilizing. We are trying to figure out what each guy likes to throw.”
As the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Hughes said he is still looking for one, or both, of his primary signal callers to make a giant leap forward. That fact has led to both players seeing significant playing time each week.
“I don’t think either one has stepped forward at this point to say ‘I am the guy.’ Both of them are making enough mistakes that it doesn’t warrant just one guy in the game,” Hughes said. “I just think it will help our team if both of them continue to elevate their games and continue to improve.”
As for the challenge the Hatters will face this weekend at Marist (4-3), the Red Foxes will present a much more pass-oriented attack on offense and, on defense, are one of the best teams in the FCS at putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Marist has thrown for an average of 254.7 yards per game this year with 17 touchdown passes. That is not to say they don’t run the ball, the average 139 yards per game on the ground, they just don’t run it as much as recent Stetson opponents. On defense, Marist is averaging three sacks per game, but also surrenders a lot of yards (359).
“I don’t think what they do will change what we do defensively,” Hughes said. “Any time we go into a game, we want to try to make the opposing offense one dimensional. You have to stop the run and, to this point, we haven’t been very good at doing that. Regardless of how much they pass the ball, our goal is to stop the run.”
Winning the running game, on both sides of the ball, is determined mostly by play at the line of scrimmage. Winning there has proven to be difficult for the Hatters, who have been smaller and less experienced on both sides of the ball than virtually every team they have faced.
“The offensive lines we have faced, and I think we have faced, counting this week, the four best in the conference, has been a baptism by fire for our guys,” Hughes said. “We have to utilize some movement and some blitzes because we can’t go toe-to-toe and take on those double teams and not get moved out of the way.”
Getting pressure on the quarterback on the line of scrimmage, and covering the Marist receivers, will be the key for Stetson to slow the Red Foxes attach. Linemen such as end Davion Belk (26 tackles) and tackle Billy Walsh (23 tackles) will have to get pressure while corners Glenn Adesoji and Chris Atkins join with safeties Donald Payne, Ryan Powers and Zach Dyer to keep the Marist receivers in check.
If the Hatters can do that, then the flight home on Saturday night will be very enjoyable for everyone.