As the campus community gets back into the swing of school, the football team prepares to tackle their tough Division III competition this season.
For a program that won three straight UAA championships less than four years ago, the past year was an unforeseen struggle for Spartan football and head coach Greg Debeljak. The Spartans skidded to a woeful 3-7 on the season and their first losing season since 2006.
The Spartans are able to point to their return to the President’s Athletic Conference (PAC) for football as a major source of their struggle last season. The Spartans found themselves outgunned on the offensive side of the ball in multiple matchups last season and a large number of costly mistakes against the strong programs of the PAC led to multiple close games ending in the loss column for the CWRU.
Furthermore, the Spartans were putting forth a young squad last season and will be relying on the experiences of last year to carry the team back above 0.500 and into the possibility of contention for the playoffs.
“Expectations, with last year being a down year, are to rebound,” said Debeljak to CWRU Athletics. “We have more kids coming back than most years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. We have a lot of experience, but we have to do the right things in practice and prepare, and we have to make plays in critical situations.”
The defense will be an invaluable strength of the Spartans as they return 10 of their 11 starters from last season. The senior class has gone through ups and downs, playing as one of the top defensive squads two seasons ago, while struggling to hit that same level of success during their junior campaign.
The defense allowed 371.7 yards per game last season, which were decent numbers, putting them fourth in the new conference. However, against the high-powered offenses that crowd the PAC, their hard work wasn’t enough to push the Spartans into more wins on the season. The Spartans were burned much more often in the air than on the ground, allowing only 136.7 of those 371.7 yards per game on the ground.
The key components of that rushing defense and keys to the upcoming season are Justin Williams, Dayton Snyder and Josh Rogers. Williams and Snyder play on the ends of the lines, while Rogers holds down the nose guard position. Williams and Snyder were all-UAA first and second team picks respectively last season for their work; Williams was limited to only two games due to injury but should pose a threat to opposing offenses this season.
At the heart of the Spartans 3-4 formation defense this season will be the linebackers, led by senior Gavin Sandidge, who was CWRU’s only selection to all-PAC first team last season with 80 tackles, six of them for a loss.
The biggest hurdle for the Spartan defense will likely be the loss of outside linebacker Everett Dishong. Dishong will miss the entire 2015 season due to injury and will have a rotation of players to fill the gap.
The offense stuttered at times last season. The Spartans had a great red-zone conversion rate last season, as they put points on the board with 83.9 percent of the trips inside opponent’s 20-yard lines last season. However, that stat can be misleading as the Spartans struggled to advance into the offensive end of the field, often due to strong defense or offensive miscues.
The Spartans are also looking to fill the void left by the graduation of Billy Beecher last spring, the CWRU squad’s starter for the entire 2015 campaign. Beecher put up 16 touchdowns and rushed for a pair, offensive numbers that the Spartans will need to replace and potentially exceed if they are looking to move to the top of the UAA and PAC standings.
The leading replacement for Beecher is sophomore Rob Cuda, who played in three games under center last season. Cuda completed nine of his 14 attempts last season for 94 yards and a touchdown. Look for Cuda to step up into the position this season.
Whoever takes over the QB position will have a lot of help out of the backfield, such as senior fullback Adam Hochman and sophomore running back Anthony Canganelli. Hochman put up six touchdowns last season while Canganelli posted 282 rushing yards on the season.
They will face a tough schedule similar to last year, opening the season against last year’s UAA champions, the University of Chicago, on Sept. 5 on the road in Chicago. The Spartans open at home against PAC rival St. Vincent College on Sept. 16. The final test of the season will be against Carnegie Mellon as they conclude their season on the road and compete for the 30th-annual Academic Bowl.
Look forward to The Observer’s weekly predictions starting next week.