Like most football teams, the Flying Dutchmen are pretty good at parroting the one-week-at-a-time mantra of their head coach. But Dave Cohen is probably pretty pleased to know the Dutchmen plan to spend Thanksgiving at his house.
The first round of the Division I-AA playoffs is the Saturday following Thanksgiving and the Dutchmen expect to be among the 16 qualifiers for the first time since 2001, when Hofstra won the Atlantic-10 in its first season in the conference.
“Take it one game at a time,” Dutchman linebacker and All-America candidate Luke Bonus said. “But we want to be up here for Thanksgiving. No one’s making flight arrangements or going [away] for Thanksgiving. We’re going to be here for the long haul, all the way through December. That’s the plan.”
To reach the playoffs this season would represent quite a leap for the Dutchmen, whose postseason hopes perished in a hurry last year during an injury-plagued season that almost defied all logic and explanation.
Starting quarterback Bryan Savage suffered a career-ending back injury warming up prior to the season opener against UConn, and it didn’t get much better from there for the Dutchmen, who lost 12 players to season-ending injuries on their way to a 4-8 finish.
The spate of injuries forced the Dutchmen, who were already skewing young following the graduation of 14 starters from the 2007 team, to embark on a complete rebuilding plan. The results were predictably painful: The Dutchmen suffered three straight losses by at least 17 points, only the fourth time that’s occurred in the history of the program, were shutout twice and lost by a combined 96 points to the three top 10 teams they faced (James Madison, New Hampshire and eventual national champion Richmond).
The hope within the program is that this year’s Dutchmen will yield the benefits of last year’s growing pains, especially with 20 starters and 40 lettermen returning. Sixteen of the Dutchmen’s starters will be juniors or younger.
“We played about 18 more guys than most programs did,” Cohen said. “We have a lot more guys with the starting experience because of the outside factors that were beyond our control. We have more people with experience and more people that will not be wide-eyed when the lights come on Saturday night. They’ve been to the dance [before].”
The experience of 2008 has fueled the returnees and made for a cohesive spring and summer of workouts. “The summer’s been real good as far as us learning the whole offense and defense,” sophomore wide receiver Aaron Weaver said. “We have a better grasp for the whole system and it’s looking good out there.”
“Obviously, injuries killed the season, but there’s a lot of stuff that people weren’t used to as a team, whether it’s because of youth or inexperience of just overall players not getting it done,” Bonus said. “This whole offseason, we focused on doing the small things that help you win a game in the fourth quarter or even in overtime. That’s been a big emphasis on our offseason and I think it’ll show [against Stony Brook] and throughout the whole season.”
Expectations are high outside Margiotta Hall as well: While the Dutchmen were picked to finish fourth in the CAA North in the preseason coaches poll, they were ranked 24th in the preseason I-AA coaches poll and seventh by the Phil Steele College Football Yearbook, which also pegged the Dutchmen first in the CAA North.
The CAA is so deep, though, that even living up to the prediction of the national coaches may not be enough to assure the Dutchmen—the last of the eight CAA teams in the preseason top 25—a trip to the playoffs. The CAA has sent a record five teams to the playoffs in each of the last two years.
Conversely, Richmond finished third in the CAA South last year before winning it all. So anything can happen as long as Cohen is trying to figure out a way to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for several dozen hungry players
“We’re probably going to be at coach Cohen’s house,” said starting quarterback Cory Christopher, who came back from a season-ending hip injury suffered against Maine Oct. 18 to beat out sophomore Steve Probst and freshman Joe Sidaris. “I’m from Miami. I’m not planning on being on Jet Blue websites—no Deltas, none of that. I’m planning on being on Long Island.”