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Muhlenberg College

Thursday, November 20, 2008

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Men’s basketball

Football looks to even score with wesley

David Mazzola was standing in street clothes, relegated to the sidelines by an injury, when he watched Aaron Jackson whiz by for a 44-yard run on his first carry of last year’s second-round NCAA playoff game between Muhlenberg and Wesley.

“It was the first time I realized there was a significant change in speed from what we see in the Centennial Conference to this level,” he recalled. “You make the tiniest mistake, there’s a little opening, and someone goes 60-70 yards for a touchdown.”

Mazzola will get a more hands-on look at that speed when he and his
Matt Rathbun
Centennial Conference defensive player of the year Matt Rathbun made six tackles, including two for loss, and recovered a fumble in last year’s playoff game against Wesley.
Muhlenberg teammates take the field against the Wolverines in the first round of this year’s NCAA playoffs at Scotty Wood Stadium on Saturday.

Last year, the Mules scored on their first drive of the game and held the 7-0 lead through most of the first half. It could have been a bigger lead, but Muhlenberg came up empty on two drives that started in Wesley territory after fumbles, failing on fourth down once and missing a field goal.

The defense was doing a good job on the Wolverines’ 210-pound running back, Mike Pennewell, but then the smaller, quicker Jackson entered the game and turned the tide. The 44-yard run set up the tying touchdown with 1:19 left in the half, and Jackson rushed for touchdowns of 41 and 89 yards on consecutive touches early in the second half. Wesley went on to win, 38-21.

“The first half we stayed right with them,” said senior tackle Steve Halupka. “Then we didn’t execute as well as we could, and it got away.”

This year, although the site and round are different, many of the principals will be the same. Wesley (8-1) returns
John DeLuca
DeLuca, the Centennial Conference offensive player of the year, returned the opening kickoff of the 2007 Wesley game 51 yards to set up a touchdown. He finished with 220 all-purpose yards, including 80 on the ground.
most of its offense from last year – Pennewell, Jackson, wide receiver Larry Beavers (also a threat on special teams, with seven touchdowns on kick returns this year), All-America tight end Jon Lanouette.

One big change is at quarterback, where sophomore Shane McSweeny took the job from the returning starter, a senior. All McSweeny has done is complete 68.9 percent of his passes and throw 15 touchdowns with only two interceptions. He ranks second in Division III with a 192.7 passing efficiency rating.

“They have everything on offense any team would want,” commented Mazzola, an all-conference safety the last two years. “A good passer who can run, a power back, a speed back, good receivers.

“We have to limit mistakes, especially in the run game. When we see run, we have to get to the ball, fly around and gang tackle. When they’re passing, we have to be crisp.”

Although not as prolific as it has been in some recent years, the Muhlenberg defense has still been solid. The Mules (9-1) are seventh in Division III in pass efficiency defense and 17th in total defense.

And Muhlenberg’s offense is nothing to sneeze at either. The Mules’ offensive numbers are strikingly similar to Wesley’s (see chart), and they have scored at least four touchdowns in every game but two: against Franklin & Marshall in the driving rain and wind, and against Moravian in the regular-season finale.

“Things were just a little out of sync,” said Halupka about
Tale of the Tape
Muhlenberg Category Wesley
217.4 rushing offense 226.4
209.7 passing offense 206.2
427.1 total offense 432.7
33.9 scoring offense 39.1
101.8 rushing defense 82.7
89.8 pass efficiency defense 104.5
258.2 total defense 250.1
15.8 scoring defense 13.2
plus-6 turnover margin even
Muhlenberg’s only loss to a team other than Wesley the last two years. “We understand that happened, and hopefully this week will be a different story.”

Like Wesley, Muhlenberg has standouts on offense. Senior John DeLuca is fourth in Division III in rushing yards per game (160.4), senior Eric Santagato is 18th in passing efficiency (155.1), and junior Phil Cresta, who missed the Moravian game with injury, is tied for 14th in receiving yards per game (108.2).

They will try to solve a tough Wesley unit that ranks in the top 20 in Division III in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. Remarkably, the Wolverines have given up only 19 points in the first half all season.

“They’re big, physical and athletic,” said Halupka. “We have to establish the run early and make them respect it. If we can wear those big guys down a little, we can open things up for John and take our chances down the field to try to make some big plays.”

The two teams enter the playoff encounter from different directions. Wesley is on a roll, having won eight in a row following an opening loss to Delaware Valley. Muhlenberg won its first nine games before falling to Moravian in overtime on Saturday.

“It’s always depressing when one of your goals is to go 10-0, but everybody realizes that’s over now and took it as a learning experience,” said Mazzola. “It was a rude awakening but something we needed, and it will prepare us for this week and hopefully the rest of the playoffs.”

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