There will be plenty of extra traffic on Vermont’s roads Saturday, and not just because the hillsides are exploding with golds, reds and oranges. All three of the state’s college football teams are playing at home.
Middlebury (4-0) and Norwich University (4-1) are working on special seasons but 0-4 Castleton University has just as much to play for.
That is because the Spartans have an opportunity for a whole new lease on life — a 1-0 record in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference.
“I have heard the captains and upperclassmen talking about it. I think they understand that this is the time to reset,” Castleton coach Tony Volpone said.
The ECFC has been the ugly duckling on the NCAA Division III landscape with a 2-21 record against outside competition. The league title appears to be up for grabs and the Spartans can stake their claim by beating Gallaudet on Saturday at Dave Wolk Stadium.
The Bison bring an 0-3 record. Both teams had a bye last weekend.
Saturday’s lineup: Gallaudet at Castleton, noon; United States Merchant Marine Academy at Norwich, 1 p.m.; Colby at Middlebury, 1 p.m. It is Parent & Family Weekend at Norwich and Homecoming & Family Weekend at Castleton.
Merchant Marine’s run-heavy attack means the Cadet defense has a supreme challenge on its hands. Merchant Marine scores points at about the rate leaves fall from trees. The Mariners are averaging 47.5 points per game.
They do it by running the football. And with a lot of people doing it. Twelve different Mariners have carries this season and six of them have 22 or more, led by Alec Kiernen with 39 carries for 218 yards and James Early with 58 totes for 216 yards.
They average 72 running plays to 12 passes per game.
How do you stop this overland express? That has been the challenge for Norwich coach Mark Murnyack and his staff this week in scheming to do what nobody has done yet — slow down the United States Merchant Marine Academy’s vaunted ground game.
“They are the No. 1 rushing team in the country. We are going to have to play really well,” Murnyack said.
That rushing defense will need another big game from Marshall Watters, a 5-foot-11, 285-pound defensive lineman, who had 18 tackles all last season and 13 on Saturday against Springfield.
“He has done a great job. We played him at left guard against Castleton so he has kind of been playing both ways,” Murnyack said.
The 21-17 loss to Springfield was a new experience for the Cadets this season and it will be interesting to see how they respond to it.
“They were disappointed in the outcome but I was not disappointed in the effort,” Murnyack said.
“I think they can’t wait to get back out there and find out what they’re made of.”
Just as Watters had a mammoth game on the defensive line for the Cadets, so did Chris Rice for Castleton two weeks ago against Norwich. Rice had four tackles for a loss, three sacks and he forced a fumble, recovered it and took it to the end zone. The three sacks set a program record for a player in a single game.
He was named the ECFC Defensive Player of the Week.
“We knew he could be disruptive to the passing game with his ability to deflect balls,” Volpone said. “But he has made a big commitment to the weight room and to developing as a player. He can now play the run and the pass and has become one of the best defensive players in our conference.
“He was born with some gifts but he has really maximized his talent.”
Rice and company will have to defend Gallaudet’s option attack that saw quarterback Timel Benton throw for three touchdowns the last time out, a 27-25 loss to Greensboro.
”They are an option team that will take their shots selectively in the passing game,” Volpone said.
Volpone used the bye week to rest some players with nagging injuries and illnesses.
Colby is 0-4 and figures to have a tough time breaking through in Middlebury.
Middlebury quarterback Will Jernigan threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns last week to lead the Panthers to a 34-31 victory in two overtimes at previously unbeaten Amherst.
QUICK KICKS: Dartmouth puts its 3-0 record on the line in Saturday’s homecoming game against Yale. Kickoff in Hanover is at 1:30 p.m. ... New Hampshire is 3-2 but more importantly 2-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association. It takes a three-game winning streak into Saturday’s game at Stony Brook at 6:30 p.m. ... Two of Vermont’s teams remain ranked in the NCAA New England Division III Poll — Middlebury at No. 3 and Norwich at No. 10. WPI (5-0) is No. 1.