The Bison (2-0), who set a school record with 739 total and 482 rushing yards last week, currently boast the No. 1 rushing attack in all of Division III. Through three weeks of the season (Bethany was idle in Week 1), the Bison are averaging 352.0 yards per game on the ground, just ahead of Dubuque (Iowa) College’s 350.5 yards per game and Springfield (Mass.) College’s average of 346.5.
What makes Bethany’s total of 704 rushing yards in two games even more impressive is that it ranked last in the President’s Athletic Conference in 2006 with 71.1 yards per game. The reasons for the improvements in the ground game are numerous as the Bison’s trips to the end zone this season, according to second-year coach Tim Weaver.
“One of the main reasons for our improvement is the offensive line,” said Weaver, who is 6-6 in his time on the Bethany sideline. “The continuity we’ve had up there, not just with personnel and four starters coming back, but also with Andrew Rossi in his second year coaching them has been a huge advantage.
“We are also in the second year of running our system and the team is more comfortable in their assignments and knowing what they need to do
“At tailback, we have a lot of depth, which presents a good, competitive situation for carries. On the outside, we have the threat of being able to throw over the top because of the speed at receiver and we also have a QB who can make plays with his legs, as well as his arm.”
Leading the Bison’s plethora of running backs is Nick Neratka, who is ranked 33rd in the nation in rushing yards per game with 123 per game. The 5-foot-8, 195-pound junior gained 122 yards last season, but he surpassed that total with 137 in a 24-7 victory at Hiram in Bethany’s season opener Sept. 8. Then, he rushed for 109 yards and a pair of scores in the Saint Vincent victory, making him the first Bethany back to surpass 100 yards in consecutive games since Will Anderson did it in four straight toward the end of the 2002 season.
Other backs who are contributing include freshmen Nick Czapor, Marcus Santini, Shaka Brown and fullback John Rhodes, all of whom had more than 50 yards Saturday.
“Last year, we had trouble finding one back who could consistently produce for us,” Bethany offensive coordinator Bill Garvey said. “This season, we have five or six quality guys who can get yards, which gives us a lot of options out of the backfield.”
It’s not just the Bethany ground attack that is among the nation’s statistical leaders. In total offense, the Bison are third with 593.0 yards per game behind perennial national power Mount Union (649.0) and Alfred (N.Y.) University (594.5). Bethany is also tied with Occidental (Calif.) College for ninth in the country in scoring offense with 45.0 points per game.
Mount Union also leads this category with 66.5 points per contest and is one of four teams ahead of the Bison who made the NCAA playoffs last season.
Three other individuals from the Bethany offense are ranked nationally as well. Sophomore receiver Matt Cruse sits 14th in receiving yards per game with 129.5. After catching six passes for a career-high 122 yards and one score against Hiram, the 6-3, 195-pound receiver hauled in six more balls and reset his career-high with 137 yards, including touchdown receptions of 83 and 8 yards. Teamed with junior Taylor McNeil, who has eight catches for 121 yards, they give the Bison a pair of threats on the outside that must be accounted for every week.
“Our receivers provide a lot of options for us,” Garvey said. “With Cruse’s speed and size, he presents matchup problems for anyone. And McNeil has great speed, too, and is really coming around now that he’s healthy, which he wasn’t for most of last season.”
The trigger man for the Bison attack is senior quarterback Milton Joyner who is ranked 33rd in the country in pass efficiency (154.32) and 38th in total offense (256.0 yards per game). Through two games, he has thrown for 439 yards and four scores while also rushing for 73 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“We had a good quarterback last year in Brent Owens, but Milton is a different type of QB,” Garvey said. “His mobility adds a different element to our game because it’s like having an extra tailback on the field, but he’s also proven he can make the throws in the pocket.”
Rounding out the ranked players is junior kicker Matt Blumer. He was named PAC Special Teams Player of the Week after totaling 18 points against Saint Vincent and is currently tied for 16th place in the nation in scoring with 12.0 points per game.
It isn’t just Bethany’s offense that ranks among the nation’s elite, as the defense is in the top 20 in yards and points. The Bison are allowing 7.0 points and 187.5 total yards per game to rank 16th in Division III in both areas.
“Our work on third down,” Weaver said without hesitation when asked what the key has been so far. “We were all right on third down last year, but we had a problem forcing teams into third-and-long situations because we had trouble stopping the run. This year, we are making plays on first and second down to force long-yardage situations and making teams predictable as to what they would run. Getting stops on third downs is such a big lift to a defense because it keeps your legs fresh for later in the game.
“And also like our offense, our guys are benefitting from being in the same system for two years. “They are a year bigger, stronger and a step faster than last year and are more confident in their calls on the field.”