Some things get easier with time. The football season is not one of them. Injuries and fatigue settle in, the temperature falls, and most teams’ hopes of a championship whittle down to near inexistence.
Wednesday evening found the Bears practicing in wind and snow, laboring under the cold brilliance of the practice field lights, evidently not caring about any of those things. It’s a week like any other, said Head Coach Phil Estes – and besides, the imposing Dartmouth team the Bears (5-3, 2-3 Ivy) will visit on Saturday is used to this sort of weather.
The Big Green (5-3, 3-2) hung on to its chance at the conference crown last week at Cornell, dominating the Big Red 44-28. Three interceptions by Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews and a fumble by running back Silas Nacita early in the game spelled doom for the Big Red. Dartmouth converted each of those turnovers into a touchdown on the ensuing drives, putting up 490 yards of total offense in the process.
The Bears also dished out a beating last weekend, shutting out Yale 20-0 at Brown Stadium. Bruno’s defense rejected every third and fourth down conversion attempt by Yale, holding the Bulldogs to 223 yards of total offense. Freshman quarterback Eric Williams was overwhelmed, throwing for 22 yards and two interceptions.
The Bears’ defense, second-best in the league for yards per game allowed, points per game allowed and interceptions, is tried and true, but Dartmouth won’t be easy on them. Running back Dominick Pierre has run for an average of nearly 100 yards and a touchdown per game, and second-string quarterback Dalyn Williams carried for 96 yards and a touchdown of his own last week. Starting quarterback Alex Park, fourth in the conference for passing yards per game, may remain on the sidelines Saturday with an injury.
“It’s their strength against our strength,” Estes said. “We do a good job in stopping the run.”
“It’s just a matter of doing our jobs and stepping on the field and making the plays we need to make,” said cornerback and co-captain AJ Cruz ’13.
“Tackling is going to be big – we’ve got to make sure we wrap up,” he added.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears have not been so reliable. While quarterback Patrick Donnelly ’13 remains third in the league for passing yards and touchdowns, his squad is third from the bottom in points and overall yards. Bruno has managed to score three touchdowns in a single game only once since September.
That struggle to put points on the board is an indicator of where injuries have been hitting the Bears hardest. Bruno’s top five running backs have all been hurt this season, leaving only two of them – Cody Taulbee ’14 and Jeffrey Izon ’13 – healthy enough to rush against Yale. The duo rushed for a combined 91 yards on 18 carries.
“It’s hard to have consistency when you have so many injuries. But we’re getting there,” Estes said.
Building a sound rushing game would take some of the onus off Donnelly to move the offense forward, he added, but it would be easier with senior tailbacks Spiro Theodhosi ’13 and Mark Kachmer ’13 on the field. Both are out for the remainder of the season.
“To have a Theodhosi and to have a Kachmer and that kind of consistency in your backfield goes a long way. I think the biggest thing the team misses is the personalities that you lose when you lose really good players like that,” Estes said.
Bruno’s bruised offense will line up against a Big Green defense that allows a respectable average of 323 yards and just over 20 points per game.
Donnelly said the offense will look to take advantage of potential big plays.
“They’re pretty aggressive in their defensive secondary, so if they give you a chance to take a shot, you have to capitalize on it,” he said.
But Estes emphasized that the Bears’ challenges will start on their own side of the line.
“I don’t think we played our best game yet. I don’t think we played our best game as a team, and I think this is where we’ve got to put it together,” he said. “And that’s why you go out on a day like today to say it’s not going to be about the weather.”
Whatever the climate in Hanover Saturday, the game will feature two teams playing for somewhat different reasons. For Dartmouth, the potential of an Ivy championship is still on the line.
For the Bears, Estes said, “I think it’ll do for us to go up there and create some havoc for them.