W&J coach wary of Mary Hardin-Baylor's high-powered offense
Suffice to say, this isn't a Presidents' Athletic Conference football game.
No. 4 Washington & Jefferson and No. 8 Mary Hardin-Baylor clash today at W&J's Cameron Stadium for the right to claim a spot in the NCAA Division III semifinals .
Not that Washington & Jefferson hadn't been tested in some of its PAC regular-season games, but this battle of national quarterfinalists promises to be no easy task for either team.
"This game is going to come down to toughness. Whoever runs and tackles tougher is going to win this game," Washington & Jefferson coach Mike Sirianni said.
The second-year coach, who this week was voted NCAA Division III South Region coach of the year, is well aware that Mary Hardin-Baylor (11-1), which has lost just six games over the past five seasons, poses the toughest challenge so far for Washington & Jefferson (12-0).
And that includes the Presidents' first two playoffs games, a 55-48 overtime victory over No. 18 Bridgewater (Va.) in the first round and a 24-14 triumph over No. 23 Christopher Newport in the second round.
"This is the best team we will have faced since I have been a W&J (assistant or head) coach," Sirianni said, referring to Mary Hardin-Baylor, the American Southwest Conference champion.
The only previous game between PAC champion Washington & Jefferson and a school from the American Southwest Conference occurred during the 1999 playoffs when Hardin-Simmons crushed the Presidents, 51-3, in Abilene, Texas.
Hardin-Simmons has handed Mary Hardin-Baylor three losses during Mary Hardin-Baylor's impressive five-year run, including its only setback this season.
The Crusaders, however, advanced to today's game by returning the favor against Hardin-Simmons last week with a 42-28 second-round victory.
Mary Hardin-Baylor is averaging 49.6 points per game and its's rushing average of 364.8 yards per game ranks third in NCAA Division III. The Crusaders have reached at least 50 points in a game six times, including at least 70 twice.
Washington & Jefferson is averaging 42.1 points and has scored at least 50 points five times, including more than 70 on one occasion.
"We are going to have to be able to run the ball to sustain drives, because they like to score a ton of points," Sirianni said. "They line up and run the ball right at you."
Washington & Jefferson, which set a school-record for victories in a season, is led by quarterback Chris Edwards, a junior who has played in just 20 career games. Already, though, he has moved into fourth place on the school's passing list with 4,543 yards, and his 36 touchdown passes represent the highest single-season total in school history.
Edwards has relied mainly on a trio of receivers, who have combined for 170 receptions. Aaron Krepps leads the way with 63 catches for 884 yards and 15 touchdowns. Jacob Shields has caught 61 passes for a team-leading 1,049 yards to go with 12 touchdowns. Jon Miller has 46 receptions for 836 yards and eight scores.
Fullback R.J. Zitzelsberger, the team's leading rusher, is sidelined with a knee injury.
Mary Hardin-Baylor's punishing ground game is led by Justin Bryson's 1,651 yards and 14 touchdowns. Sophomore Freddie Rollins has added 934 yards and 10 touchdowns and Chad Starnes 600 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"They have three talented running backs and we are going to have to play our best game of the season on defense," Sirianni said. "This is going to be a true test."
|Washington & Jefferson (12-0) vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor (11-1)|
Where: Cameron Stadium, Washington, Pa.
On air: WJPA-AM (1450), WNJR-FM (91.7)