Entering his third season leading the Raven football program, Coach Sala had high hopes for the team’s on-field product. After stumbling out of the gates to an 0-2 record, those hopes haven’t been lived up to as previously envisioned.
“We’ve made progress in a lot of other areas that people don’t see,” Sala said. “On the field, we have to keep hitting the reset button each year.”
Hitting the reset button has resulted in another extremely young team taking the field for the Ravens. Dayan Smith, named to the HCAC Players to Watch list, is the only upperclassman starter on the offensive side of the ball. Three quarterbacks, Blake Levy, Jarrod Hubble and Caleb Beyers, have split reps under center. Sala explained that the biggest challenge associated with fielding a young team is a lack of confidence.
“Confidence is a big deal in sports,” Sala said. “When you have experience, you don’t get confused by what wrinkles the other teams throws your way. That goes to the wayside when everybody is 18 or 19. In our sport, more than any other, having upperclassmen matters.”
The Ravens defense possesses much more experience than the offensive unit, with as many as seven upperclassmen potentially in the starting lineup. The experience on the defensive side shows.
In the season opener against North Park, Anderson’s defense only conceded seven points in the first half, and even those points came as a result of a Raven turnover at their own 32-yard line. The Ravens ended up losing 33-7, but the defense had a strong performance. North Park controlled the time of possession battle 41:07 to 18:53. With the defense spending over two-thirds of the contest on the field, they wore down in the second half.
“We’re doing all the right things defensively,” Sala said. “A lot of players are in the rotation and gaining experience.
“Offense can be your defense’s best friend. Right now we aren’t possessing the ball long enough and are not doing a good enough job of taking pressure off of the defense.”
Though the 0-2 record is not what Anderson had hoped for, there is still reason for optimism. Their two non-conference openers came against stiff competition helping to prepare them for HCAC play. North Park is coming off of a season in which they won only one game, but their conference schedule boasts three NCAA D3 Top 25 teams. If North Park played in a conference other than the CCIW, it is likely they would post a much stronger record. Centre is coming off of an eight-win season and returned many of their key pieces from the 2016 season. Coach Sala touched on the positives that can result from playing a difficult non-conference schedule.
“As long as you don’t get too banged up, it is very helpful,” he said. “It’s more than just injuries. You have to avoid getting banged up physically and mentally.
“We do have several injuries, but we seem to be doing ok. That tough non-conference schedule is the best thing in the world if you emerge unscathed.”
The Ravens’ schedule will lighten momentarily. On Saturday, AU will welcome Earlham College to Macholtz Stadium. Earlham posted an 0-10 record in the 2016 season.
Anderson defeated the Quakers 31-14 in a road contest last year, but Coach Sala was quick to credit the improvements Earlham has made.
“Their quarterback (Wesley Hundley) is fantastic,” he said. “He is flat out scary. They always have had extremely good skill players.”
The Raven defense will have their hands full trying to slow Hundley. Hundley has thrown for five touchdowns and no interceptions in his two starts. He has added two rushing touchdowns. His 609 yards of offense and seven touchdowns have helped the Earlham offense to average 30.5 points per game, an increase of 19.2 points from their 2016 average.
On the flip side, Saturday should provide AU with a good opportunity to kick-start the offense. Earlham allows 56 points per game.
Smith is eager to step back on the field this weekend and help generate some momentum for the offense. “I think we learned a lot from our loss Saturday,” he said. “We are going to build on the positives and do our best to execute better and gain a rhythm.”
Sala noted that this week’s focus will be centered upon tightening up the play of the offensive line and containing Hundley.
Moving forward, Sala hopes to see “marked improvement, resilience and high character” from the Ravens during conference play.
Smith believes there is real potential for the Ravens to catch HCAC opponents off-guard down the stretch. “We will have tough opponents,” he said, “but I believe the young players on our team have already experienced top-level competition.
“We have a real shot to be a surprise team in the HCAC.”