Preview: Football Takes on Undefeated Widener in NCAA First Round

Friday, November 21, 2014 - page 2

NCAA logo For the last three years, senior Gene Blanco has served as student liaison to the Muhlenberg College Board of Trustees. At Board meetings in January and April, he gives a report to the campus life subcommittee about what’s going on with the campus population and voices any concerns the students have.

“I think it’s pretty cool to be able to bring a different perspective,” said Blanco, who, as the position requires, is not a member of Student Government. “It’s a unique way to get involved and a huge honor to represent the student body.”

Hobnobbing with the “big shots” came a little easier at the start for Blanco because of his football background. A captain and starting inside linebacker for the Mule football team, he found some immediate common ground with the trustees who had played at Muhlenberg.

“Having that football connection definitely made it easier to network,” he said. “It could be intimidating at first.”

Tomorrow, Blanco will lead the Mules into another situation that could be intimidating. Muhlenberg (9-1) travels to 10th-ranked Widener (10-0), one of 12 undefeated teams in Division III, for a first-round NCAA Tournament game.

Cody Geyer “They’re 10-0 for a reason,” said Blanco. “They have a good offense, a stud wide receiver, and their defense is really good. We’re going to have to bring our A game.”

The Mules, who are making their 11th postseason appearance (seventh in the NCAA Tournament) in the last 15 years, have been bringing that A game for the second half of the season. They enter the tournament with a six-game winning streak, and in the last five of those games, they’ve averaged 40.2 points – the first time in program history they have scored at least 200 points over a five-game stretch.

Defensively, Muhlenberg has allowed a shade over 14 points in the five games, but 33 of the 73 points came in the fourth quarter when games had already been decided. The Mules led by at least 18 points heading into the fourth quarter in all five games. They have been particularly tough against the run, allowing only 63.2 yards per game and one rushing touchdown in the five games.

“Over the bye week, we needed to regroup after two tough games against Johns Hopkins [a 42-26 loss] and Susquehanna [a 24-20 win],” recalled Blanco. “We went back to doing what we needed to do, focused on the fundamentals and just started rolling.

Tyler Cerbo “Being able to win nine games is a huge accomplishment. We just went into each Saturday thinking that it was our next biggest game.”

Although the stakes are higher, that is the mindset Muhlenberg – ranked 22nd by the AFCA and 25th by – will bring into the game against Widener, which is on a roll of its own. Since opening with a 19-7 win at Rowan, the Pride has scored at least 30 points in each of its last nine games, winning each by double-digit margins.

The two teams have one common opponent in Wilkes; Muhlenberg won 34-0 in the first week of the season and Widener won 59-12 a month ago. They also mirror each other in other ways: Both rank in the top 10 in Division III in rushing defense (Widener first and Muhlenberg ninth), both have committed only eight turnovers (tied for fifth in Division III), and both feature outstanding sophomore quarterbacks who have passed for over 2,500 yards.

“They remind us of us,” said Blanco.

Muhlenberg can draw on that familiarity in tomorrow’s game, and it can also draw on its past postseason experiences. The Mules hosted Delaware Valley and Salisbury in ECAC bowl games the last two years, losing both by a total of five points.

“Having that prior postseason experience is huge,” said Blanco. “After coming up short two years in a row, we know that feeling of going home. This year we know what we need to do to win.”

pictured at left: Senior co-captain Tyler Cerbo leads the Mules with seven pass breakups.
pictured at right: Senior Cody Geyer ranks 38th in Division III in receiving yards per game (93.5).