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District football Week 10 preview: Allegheny making major strides

| Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, 6:38 p.m.
Allegheny running back Tyler Balla, a Greensburg Central Catholic graduate, is fourth in the conference with 699 yards rushing.
Allegheny athletics
Allegheny running back Tyler Balla, a Greensburg Central Catholic graduate, is fourth in the conference with 699 yards rushing.
Edinboro running back Walter Fletcher has 1,437 yards rushing this season.
Edinboro athletics
Edinboro running back Walter Fletcher has 1,437 yards rushing this season.

Game of the week

Wabash at Allegheny

1 p.m. Saturday

Allegheny's 3-5 record doesn't seem like much. But considering the three wins are one more than the Gators had over the past four seasons combined, it is a significant step.

Second-year coach B.J. Hammer, who came to Allegheny from fellow North Coast Athletic Conference school Wabash, endured a 1-9 season in 2016. Now his Gators (3-5, 2-5 NCAC) have a chance to finish .500 for the first time in five seasons.

“I would love to be sitting here with at least four wins,” he said, “but overall, I'm really pleased. We had goals we wanted to achieve … and one of them was to be anywhere from 4-6 to 6-4, which I thought was realistic for us. We have a great chance.”

The biggest change Hammer introduced was in the team's offseason conditioning program. Facing the Gators from Wabash's sideline, then coaching them last season, Hammer said it was apparent Allegheny wasn't able to compete physically with its opponents.

The improvement shows — even in the defeats. The Gators have lost two games by 20 points or more compared to this point last season, when they lost five by that margin. Last season, conference heavyweight DePauw routed the Gators by 48. This season, a second-half rally enabled the Gators to narrow the gap to 16.

“Last year, we couldn't tie our shoes against DePauw,” Hammer said. “We're not getting killed physically.”

It also helps that the Gators are developing some of the conference's more dynamic players.

Junior running back Tyler Balla (Greensburg CC) ranks fourth in the NCAC with 699 rushing yards. Junior quarterback Logan Lee ranks third in passing yards per game (278.5) and has thrown 26 touchdowns against only six interceptions.

Sophomore receiver Alex Victor is closing in on 1,000 yards from scrimmage and has 13 touchdowns, including receiving TDs of 85, 67, 65 and 47 yards and a rushing TD of 75 yards.

On defense, junior lineman Colten Buzard (Valley) leads the NCAC with 10 sacks and is second in tackles for loss with 13.

The next hurdle, Hammer said, will be beating one of the NCAC's elite teams, and they have that chance at home against Wabash (6-2, 5-2).

If the Gators pull the upset, .500 is a real possibility. Allegheny concludes with a winnable game against Oberlin (2-6, 1-6), the only team it beat last season.

And the best news of all? Among their regulars, the Gators will lose only three to graduation.

Other top matchups

iup at Mercyhurst

Noon Saturday

On paper, it doesn't look like much of a test for the Crimson Hawks (8-0, 6-0 PSAC) . The Lakers, after all, are 4-5, 3-3. But Mercyhurst has played tough against all of the West's big dogs. They lost to Slippery Rock by three, to Edinboro by three, and Cal (Pa.) required an 18-point fourth quarter to come from behind and beat the Lakers by 10. The problem for Mercyhurst, one of the PSAC's leakiest rushing defenses, will be stopping IUP's stable of backs that average 261 yards.

Westminster at Case Western

1 p.m. Saturday

With their conference title hopes dulled by a narrow loss to Washington & Jefferson two weeks ago, the Titans (6-2, 5-1) turn their attention to another PAC juggernaut: Case Western (8-0, 6-0). Westminster still has a chance at the title with wins over CWR and Geneva next week. But it needs help. Unbeaten W&J would have to lose twice (Geneva this week and Waynesburg next week). Westminster must figure out a way to stop arguably the PAC's best offensive player, Case Western quarterback Rob Cuda. Cuda has passed for the most yards (2,162) and touchdowns (24) in the conference. He also has rushed for 329 yards and five scores and directs an offense that scores 44 a game.

Clarion at Gannon

Noon Saturday

In the standings, this game doesn't mean a whole lot. But the 2,000-yard watch is on for junior Marc Jones of Gannon (3-6, 2-4 PSAC). Last week, he was held to a season-low 91 yards against IUP. Still, he enters the final two games of the season needing 198 yards to reach the magic number. Clarion (1-8, 1-5) ranks in the middle of the pack in the PSAC in rushing defense.

Player spotlight

Walter Fletcher, Edinboro

Sophomore running back

While Gannon's Marc Jones has garnered a lot of attention for chasing the 2,000-yard mark, Fletcher has come on strong in the second half of the season. He trails only Jones in the nation in rushing yards, 1,802 to 1,437.

In the past five games, Fletcher has rushed for at least 230 yards three times and scored 14 touchdowns. He also has three receiving touchdowns, giving him 19 total for the season. He is averaging 7 yards per carry.

By the numbers

13 — Combined sacks for Allegheny's Colten Buzard (10) and Marcus Davenport (3), both Valley graduates.

274 — Points scored by Duquesne, most in the Northeast Conference.

Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at ccurti@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.

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