W&J trounces Buffalo State, heads to playoffs unbeaten
Washington & Jefferson College almost decidedly cemented home-field advantage for at least the first round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs, overcoming a slow start against visiting Buffalo State and rolling to a 47-14 victory in its regular-season finale Saturday at Cameron Stadium.
The third-ranked Presidents, who outgained the Bengals in total yardage, 511-282, improved to 10-0 and were awaiting word of their first-round playoff opponent, which was to be determined today.
"We'll be at home," W&J coach John Banaszak said. "I don't think they would take that away from us."
W&J likely is to be awarded one of the top three seeds in the South Region. If the Presidents receive a No. 2 seed, they could face Dixie Conference champion Christopher Newport, which is competing in its first varsity season and was expected to get the seventh and final seed in the region.
With the win, the Presidents posted their sixth undefeated regular-season record and first since 1995, when they lost to Rowan in the Division III semifinals.
Last season, W&J carried a 9-1 record into the playoffs and earned a home game in the first round. But the Presidents were eliminated by Bridgewater (Va.), 59-42.
"I've been using that game as motivation in the last 10 games," said W&J quarterback Brian Dawson, who was intercepted seven times in the playoff loss to Bridgewater.
Dawson has been at the top of his game in recent weeks. Yesterday, he completed 20 of 33 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns - two to Dave Armitage - with two interceptions. He has passed for 639 yards and seven touchdowns in the past two games.
"I feel pretty fresh, unlike last year at this time, when I was mentally drained," Dawson said. "I feel better mentally because our defense has taken some of the pressure off and because of our ability to run the ball better this year."
Dawson's performance vaulted him into the top spot as W&J's all-time leader in total offense with 7,681 yards. It is the 17th individual school record for Dawson, who last weekend became the school's all-time leading passer in a 43-14 victory over Malone.
W&J struggled to a 10-6 halftime lead against Buffalo State (1-8), which opened the season with a victory over Division I-AA Robert Morris. However, the Presidents turned up the heat in the third quarter, scoring 21 unanswered points, fueled by a 62-yard fumble recovery by freshman linebacker Eric Field. The play started when teammate Andre Barnabei sacked Buffalo State quarterback Rodney Randall, forcing the fumble.
"We were in a blitz, and Barnabei nailed him," said Field, who was making his third start at middle linebacker in place of DeMare Mayo, who is academically ineligible. "I saw the ball roll and I thought about jumping on it, but ... "
Field, who led W&J in tackles for the second consecutive week with 10, played on Erie Cathedral Prep's PIAA Class AAAA championship team last season. His touchdown gave W&J a commanding 27-6 lead with 5:36 left in the third quarter and sent the Presidents' sideline into a frenzy.
"We were emotionally high after that play," Banaszak said.
W&J led 34-6 heading into the fourth quarter after Dawson fired a 13-yard pass to Jon Pons.
Joey Nichols gained 105 yards on 23 carries - the sixth time he has reached the 100-yard mark in a game this season.
"All I know right now is we'll be in the playoffs," Banaszak said. "These guys know what's at stake."