Two-thirds of a football season can be a grind. Teams face struggles, off days, injuries, mistakes, and any number of tests on the gridiron over the course of two months.
Eleventh-ranked Case (7–0), who hosts Chicago (2–4) on Saturday in the Maroons’ UAA debut, has made it look like a cakewalk.
Entering the season with high expectations in the conference and nationally, Case has lived up to the hype. After an 11–1 campaign in 2007, the Spartans’ only loss in the past two seasons came after they advanced to the second round of the NCAA Championship tournament.
“Case is a very good football team,” Chicago head coach Dick Maloney said. “What we expect is a very highly efficient offense.”
That offensive efficiency has led Case to the sixth-highest scoring total in the nation, with 306 points, while the Spartans have coughed up the football only five times this year.
The Maroons’ toughest task on Saturday will be containing third-year quarterback Dan Whalen, who dominated Chicago’s defense last season when he threw for 163 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another.
“Their quarterback is very good,” Maloney said. “He makes great decisions, has a wonderful arm, keeps things alive in the pocket. He puts the ball right where it has to be to be caught virtually every time. He throws the ball, as we say, into the open window as opposed to needing a garage door to throw into.”
Whalen, ranked fifth nationally in passing efficiency, commands an offense that has scored 228 of its points in the first half this season. Chicago will look to force Case’s offense out of sync with pressure in the pocket.
“We have to create some adversity for them, which, pretty much this year, they’ve had their way in the first half, so we need to try to throw a little doubt in that,” Maloney said.
Along with defensive pressure, the Maroons will look for a controlled tempo on offense. After an ankle injury to fourth-year quarterback John Kiernan last Saturday against Denison, the Maroons’ passing game has lost its deep-threat capability. Case, however, has surrendered over 153 rushing yards per game, perhaps playing into Chicago’s strengths in the run and the short pass game.
With Chicago limiting its turnovers to 11 so far this season, Maloney said that protecting the football will be especially important against as balanced a team as Case.
“I think we have to be patient,” Maloney said. “We have to be patient on offense, control the ball, and we have to make them patient on offense as well—play the field position game a little bit.”
Case comes into the conference opener this weekend having surrendered just over 13 points per game for a total of 96 on the season. Just seven of those points have come in the first half, partially because of Case’s knack for creating turnovers in the red zone.
“We have to obviously be mentally, physically, and emotionally ready to play,” Maloney said. “We have to play our best game of the year. We have to play our best first play of the year, best first series of the year, best quarter of the year.”
Chicago faithful can’t help but remember Case’s 35–3 shellacking of the Maroons in last season’s conference opener. With Whalen leading the attack, the Spartans jumped ahead 28–3 by the half and intercepted the South Siders five times over the course of the afternoon.
Some of the squad’s more experienced members, however, look back to the teams’ 2006 meeting, in which rain, hail, snow, thunderstorms, and bitter cold set the tone for a bruising battle, which the Spartans snagged with a touchdown with 24 seconds remaining to win it 10–9.
In the Maroons’ toughest test of the season, Chicago will need strong performances from their second-year quarterback Marshall Oium and first-year runningback Francis Adarkwa, both of whom entered the season in reserve roles.
Even with Case’s myriad of threats spanning from offense to defense to special teams, Maloney said that his team is capable of handing the Spartans their first loss.
“Our guys believe that if we go in there and play emotionally, play well, we can make it a heck of a ball game and come away with a win.”