SPORTS

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October 1, 2006

Football faces toughest challenge of season as Tigers invade Stagg

What a difference a year makes.

At this point last fall, football was winless in three attempts and in danger of a third consecutive losing season. It’s now 12 months later, and the Maroons prepare to square off against an old nemesis hoping to do more than hold its own.

The centerpiece of a packed weekend schedule at Stagg, the Maroons (2-–1) will test their mettle against one of the region’s best when they take on DePauw (2–1) Saturday afternoon. Powered by an electric spread offense and a stingy defense, Chicago is off to its best start since 2002, and looking to make amends against a team that has had the Maroons’ number in recent years. Last season, the Tigers wore down the visitors in Greencastle, pulling away in the second half for a 33–9 rout. Since then, however, the Maroons have only lost once—a 23–10 defeat at the hands of Elmhurst September 16—and have demonstrated a tenacity on both sides of the ball that has given them an edge in tight games and blown lesser opponents out of the water with an average margin of victory of 33 points.

“They’re one of the most talented teams we’ll play all year,” said head coach Dick Maloney, who has a 1–7 career record against the Tigers. “It’s a measuring stick. We focus on this game for that reason.”

If the Maroons are going to be successful, they will need to continue to demonstrate their offensive clout against a relentless Tigers defense. Despite the absence of last season’s top receiver, fourth-year Micah Dawson, to a shoulder injury, the Maroons’ aerial attack has continued to thrive behind the arm of fourth-year quarterback Matt Rinklin. So far this fall, he has thrown for 581 yards and three scores, while depositing his passes in the hands of seven different receivers.

“It’s been a very easy adjustment for Matt. We all thought that there was a distinct possibility that Micah couldn’t return because of his shoulder, so those adjustments were being made last winter,” Maloney said. “In football, because it’s such a team sport, you just plug the next person in and go from there. We’re going to spread the ball around—spreading the ball around is essential in our offense.”

Rinklin and company will have their hands full Saturday. With a talented defense anchored by one of the division’s top pass rushers, fourth-year defensive end Dustin Hertel, and a secondary led by fourth-year safety Greg Sylvester, the pressure will be on the Maroons’ spread offense to step up to the challenge.

“We’ve made a commitment to throwing the ball over the past couple of years, but whatever is working is what you go with,” Maloney said. “We need to do both [pass and run] in order to win.”

An equally crucial ingredient to the squad’s performance has been the emergence of second-year Chuck Little as a star in the backfield to complement third-year Nick Schey. Little’s success has resulted in a relentless two-headed running back approach that keeps both players fresh and wears out opposing defenses.

“That’s been a real plus for us. Chuck has just matured from his first year to his second. We had a tremendous running back returning and they’ve shared fine. If you have two guys who are talented, they have to play.”`

On the defensive side of the ball, the Maroons will have their hands full against a ground game that has averaged 148.7 yards per contest this season. While the loss of All-Americans defensive end Rob Tamillow and cornerback Colin Carrier to graduation left big shoes to fill, much of the starting unit returned intact this fall and the results have been noticeable. Led by playmaking third-year linebacker Gaby Fernandez, the Maroons have held opponents to 40 rushing yards per game and an average of only 200 yards of total offense.

“We have a lot of people back. I think all of them have stepped up—the guys up front, the linebacker corps have all been good,” Maloney said. “We’re very pleased with our two corners if only because they’re a first year and a second year and we didn’t really know what to expect from them. It’s been a real group effort.”

In last season’s meeting in Greencastle, the Maroons stayed close for a half before the Tigers pulled away late. Sticking to its power running game throughout, DePauw was able to wear down Chicago’s defensive line while accumulating 316 yards on the ground.

“We have to stop their running game, or slow down the running game—I don’t know if we can completely stop them—get them off schedule,” Maloney said. “They wore us down last year. They’re big. If we can get them into throwing situations on third down we’ll be in good shape.”

If the Maroons can keep the Tigers’ offense at bay and piece together some offense of their own, an upset could very well be in the works Saturday. With Wash U. and the UAA slate lurking, a win would give Chicago some much needed momentum as they get set to defend their crown.