District football Week 9 preview: Carnegie Mellon, Westminster aim to finish strong
Game of the week
Carnegie Mellon at Westminster
7 p.m. Saturday
Sam Benger calls them "nagging injuries."
A broken pinkie, torn cartilage in his wrist and torn cartilage in his rib cage sound a lot more painful than that to normal human beings.
But Carnegie Mellon's star senior running back said he never considered sitting. His production might be down this season — by his standards — but Benger remains on pace for a third straight 1,000-yard season as the Tartans (7-1, 5-1 PAC) prepare for the Titans (5-2, 4-1).
"It's forced me to change my perspective in a lot of ways and look at it as a character-building situation as opposed to something to be frustrated about," said Benger, a two-time All-American and two-time PAC Offensive Player of the Year.
He has carried 123 times for 810 yards and nine touchdowns this fall. As a sophomore, he finished with 2,092 yards and 22 touchdowns, and as a junior, the totals were 1,671 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Benger, the school's all-time leading rusher, still is averaging 6.6 yards per carry — the same number as his sophomore season — but has seen a reduced workload because of the injuries. He hurt his ribs in Week 2 and his finger and wrist in Week 3.
The ribs have hindered him the most, although he's coming off a 23-carry, 204-yard, two-touchdown performance against Thiel last week, his most attempts since the opener and most yards since Week 2.
"The real issue is that I wasn't able to accelerate," Benger said of the ribs. "It tenses up because your abs and core tense up when you're accelerating. It was tough, but I'm definitely doing better."
Through it all, Benger never complained, coach Rich Lackner said. And the Tartans offense has remained potent, with junior quarterback Alex Cline (21 touchdowns) and all-time leading receiver John Prather (50 catches, 821 yards, 11 touchdowns) taking on bigger roles.
"To see (Benger) battle through those injuries is an inspiration more than anything," Lackner said.
On Saturday, Benger and CMU face a Westminster team smarting from a 34-33 overtime loss at No. 15 Washington & Jefferson (7-0, 5-0) last week. Case Western (7-0, 6-0) also is unbeaten in the conference, so CMU and Westminster need to win out and get help to earn the PAC title and automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how our guys respond," said Westminster coach Scott Benzel, whose team had an early 14-0 lead last week and lost on a failed 2-point conversion pass. "As a coach, you learn a lot after a defeat. Sometimes more than you do after a win."
Lackner summed up Westminster's team with one word: "Athletes." The Titans are led by seniors CJ Armstrong and Bobby Noble (Greensburg Central Catholic), who rank first and second in the conference with 71⁄2 and six sacks, respectively.
They know Benger well. Last season, he had 145 yards in CMU's 35-23 victory. In 2005, the Titans limited Benger to a season-low 83 yards on 26 carries in a 26-16 victory.
"It's the ability to put numbers to a runner like that," Benzel said. "You have to have the mentality to swarm to him.
"They're a complete football team: special teams, offense, defense, all three phases. They may be the best team we've played to this point, to be honest with you."
Other top matchups
Mercyhurst at Cal (Pa.)
1 p.m. Saturday
Lakers (4-4, 3-2 PSAC West) and Vulcans (6-2, 3-2) are part of four-way tie for second place in division. ... Mercyhurst is one of three teams in the league with two 450-plus yard rushers: Garrett Owens (482) and E'Andre Smith (453). ... Cal senior QB Michael Keir is coming off career-high 435-yard passing performance in last week's victory at Gannon. It was the fifth-highest total in school history.
Duquesne at Sacred Heart
The Dukes (6-1, 3-0 Northeast Conference) go for their seventh win in a row. … Duquesne QB Tommy Stuart leads the conference and ranks fifth in FCS with a pass efficiency of 171.5. He has thrown for 1,545 yards with a completion percentage of 68.8, 21 touchdowns and four interceptions. … Sacred Heart (3-4, 1-1) owns the top rushing offense and rushing defense in the conference. … Five Pioneers running backs have at least 194 yards, led by Jordan Meachum's 326.
Logan Lee, Allegheny
The Shrewsbury, Mass., native threw five touchdowns in a 44-35 comeback win over Kenyon last week, his second five-touchdown performance in the past three weeks. He also threw for a career-best 324 yards.
For the season, Lee is 139 of 233 for 1,926 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions for the Gators (3-4, 2-4 North Coast Athletic Conference). He ranks second in the conference in yards and touchdowns.
By the numbers
15 — Consecutive home wins for IUP. It hosts Gannon on Saturday and can clinch the PSAC West with a victory.
369 — Career tackles for W&J senior linebacker Nick Murgo, third among active D-III players.
Jeff Vella is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.