November 3, 2006

Football looks to halt skid on senior day

For football, last weekend’s heartbreaking loss in Cleveland was only the tip of the iceberg in a season of close calls. With the season winding down, the Maroons look to reverse their fortunes against a first-time opponent.

Taking on Northwestern College (7–2) Saturday at Stagg, the Maroons (2–4) will try to stop a four game losing streak that has relegated them to the UAA basement and turned a promising season on its head.

“I think right now the team is going through a psychological sense of disappointment. They need to answer the bell,” head coach Dick Maloney said. “I know the seniors will, but the underclassmen can’t look ahead. I don’t think teams really have a chance to think ‘this will make us better next year.’”

After catching all the breaks last year in its romp to the league championship, Chicago has found itself on the wrong end of its last four decisions due in large part to failing to finish off opponents with the big play. Most recently, the Maroons were unable to come up with the one crushing blow Saturday against the Spartans, and it cost them dearly as a 9–2 lead late into the second half slipped away to a 10–9 loss.

“Against Case, if we kick a field goal or get one more first, or stop them, the game is over,” Maloney said. “It’s not just one play, but maybe two or three things happen.”

But the stunner in Cleveland was only the latest in a series of unfortunate events. Against DePauw September 30, in a game that seemed destined to set the tone for the UAA season that followed it, the Maroons played the Tigers fairly close through halftime. It was two key missed opportunities in the early going—a fumbled kickoff return by second-year Chuck Little and an unsuccessful fourth down conversion deep in DePauw territory—that shifted the game’s fragile balance to the visitors. With two opportunities lost, the Maroons ran out of steam in the second half and ended up falling by a deceptively lopsided 31–6 margin.

The inability to take control of the game stung the squad again on October 14 in the homecoming date with Wash U. While both teams gave away chances early, it was the Bears who were able to capitalize on them, picking up a quick six points after another Little fumble and catching Chicago’s secondary napping with a 45-yard touchdown strike on a trick play. The Maroons, meanwhile, were unable to take advantage of a collapse from the Wash U kicking game and suffered from the loss of their main big-play threat, third-year Nick Schey.

“Last year, we’ve scored more touchdowns on big plays outside the 20-yard line. We were much more explosive offensively,” Maloney said. “Just the way Nick Schey runs the ball inspires the football team. He’s always been a sparkplug.

“In close games, you have to make the plays. If you don’t and they do, that could be the difference.

“We’ve played pretty sound defensively, and we’ve had some big plays but not as much.

Making their first trip to Chicago, the Eagles will be no pushovers as the Maroons try to get back on the winning track. A member of the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association in addition to the NCAA, Northwestern patterns its offensive systems on strategies from the football days of yore.

“It’s going to be a challenge; we know very little about them,” Maloney said. “Offensively, they’re like the 1967 Green Bay Packers, running a standard I-formation. Defensively, they’re like the 1957 Oklahoma Sooners under Bud Wilkinson, with the old-fashioned 5–2 defense. They’re well coached, and it’s their last game so they’ll be up for it.”

Winners of three in a row, the Eagles favor the running game, averaging 160.2 yards per game on the ground compared to just 150 through the air. They are led by fourth-year running back Ben Freedman (966 yards. rushing, 11 TDs). Last week, Freedman lit up Westminster with 123 yards on 24 carries with one score. In a matchup to watch, Maroons fourth-year quarterback Matt Rinklin and the Chicago pass-catchers will try to find the holes in a sometimes shaky Eagles secondary led by first-year Taylor Swanson, who has given up five interceptions.

A win Saturday could be just the thing the Maroons need to turn their season around. If the squad can capitalize on the offensive and defensive opportunities, Chicago will put itself in a good position to clip the Eagles. Win or lose in the showdown with Northwestern, Saturday marks a big day in the program’s history as construction crews break ground after the game for Stagg renovations that will put in lights and synthetic grass surface.

“It’ll do numerous things for numerous programs. It’ll give us more opportunities to practice outdoors and with some degree of functionality,” said Maloney of the field’s makeover.