When redshirt senior Adam DiMichele played, he was terrific.
The problem was keeping him on the field.
The Owls’ undisputed leader performed brilliantly in the first three games of the season, completing 60 percent of his passes and throwing for 620 yards and five touchdowns.
But he injured his shoulder on Sept. 20 against Penn State, and his replacement, redshirt freshman Chester Stewart, didn’t look like a Division I-caliber quarterback until last Saturday against Miami (Ohio).
There, he threw for 178 yards and three touchdowns, including a 43-yard strike to senior wide receiver Bruce Francis that put the game away.
It was a much, much improved performance for Stewart, but still, everyone should be hoping that DiMichele can make his expected return to the lineup on Oct. 21 against Ohio.
Without him, the Owls have little chance of turning things around in the second half of the season.
Grade: DiMichele, A; Stewart, C-
What started out as a two-headed monster between sophomore Marquise Liverpool and redshirt freshman Joe Jones has turned into a Jones-dominated backfield.
Even though the Owls have been more successful when the likes of freshman cornerback Kee-ayre Griffin and freshman wide receiver James Nixon enter the game as change-of-pace backs, or when either DiMichele or Stewart improvises on a broken passing play, the fact that Jones has won the job should be recognized.
However, Jones is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, a number that should be better, even though the Owls run a pass-first offense.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Pass catchers can only go as far as the man throwing them the ball, so it comes as no surprise that this group has had some up-and-down weeks.
Against Connecticut on Sept. 6 (wind and rain) and Penn State and Western Michigan on Sept. 20 and 27 (Stewart), they were nearly invisible.
Against Army on Aug. 29, Buffalo on Sept. 13 and Miami (Ohio), they shined.
Central to that has been the steady play of Francis, who has caught 18 passes for 239 yards and five touchdowns on the season.
The complementary pass catchers, like redshirt senior Travis Shelton and juniors Jason Harper and Steve Maneri, have made some nice plays, but they’ve also dropped some balls.
Penalties, penalties, penalties.
The problem has never really been protecting DiMichele and Stewart or opening holes for Jones and the rest of the running backs, it’s been avoiding all the holding calls that stall drives and bring big plays back.
While they are not responsible for all of it, a large portion of the blame for the Owls’ 50 penalties for 428 yards (compared to 28 for 291 for their opponents) falls on this group.
That’s the reason coach Al Golden continues to add freshmen into the mix, as his veteran players like redshirt junior tackle Devin Tyler continue to welcome the yellow flags from the referees.
Even though expected starter senior Leyon Azubuike finally played his first minutes last Saturday, this group has been fairly solid.
Sure, Connecticut redshirt junior running back Donald Brown ran all over the line to the tune of 220 yards, and Miami (Ohio) sophomore running back Thomas Merriweather ran for 136 yards of his own, but in both instances, each rusher only found the endzone once.
And that’s the bottom line. They didn’t break down and give up multiple scores to opposing running backs.
The unit has also totaled nine sacks, including two and a half from junior defensive end Junior Galette, to lead a very respectable performance out of the front four.
After badly losing the battle over the middle of the field to Connecticut, Buffalo and Penn State, this group responded with improved efforts against Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio).
They are tackling better and covering tight ends and running backs better, though those problems still reared their ugly heads last Saturday.
Paced by junior John Haley’s 39 tackles, and having key players return to the lineup after bouts with injuries, there is hope that things will turn around in the final six games of the season.
The only negative mark on this group was the game against Buffalo, where it allowed Bulls’ senior quarterback Drew Willy to pass for 348 yards and three touchdowns, including the painful last-second Hail Mary completion to junior wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt where neither redshirt junior Dominique Harris nor sophomores Jamal Schulters and Jaiquawn Jarrett could box him out and knock the ball down.
Other than that, this group, along with the rest of the defense, has been very solid.
Led by Jarrett’s 46 tackles and the defensive unit’s six interceptions, it has been one of the more underrated aspects of Golden’s squad.
The only knock has been the field goal kicking of redshirt junior Jake Brownell, who cost the team dearly with his two misses from inside 40-yards against Western Michigan.
For that, he was benched, and his replacement, senior Anthony Perlozzo, also missed his lone field goal attempt last Saturday. This could definitely be come a reoccurring problem.
But, on the bright side, the punting of sophomore Jeff Wathne has been improving by the week, as he continues to boom and angle kicks and truly help out the team in the battle for field position.
Shelton’s kick returning, among the best in the country, has also been a major plus, as he is averaging over 30-yards per return. Though it was his return mate, Schulters, who was responsible for the Owls’ lone special teams’ touchdown with his kick return against Army.
Golden has been aggressive at times and conservative at others. It generally depends on the weather and the quarterback.
He’s also seen a number of little things people take for granted (penalties, catching the ball, batting down a Hail Mary attempt, throwing accuracy) simply not be there for his squad at all times.
That’s not something that entirely falls on his shoulders, as the players simply have to be able to do those things, but he is the undisputed face of this program, and he’s going to get the blame when things don’t go well.
There is no doubt the win over Miami (Ohio) saved the Owls’ season.
A loss, and they are 0-3 in Mid-American Conference play, essentially out of any kind of race for the MAC Championship game or a Bowl bid.
But that win gives them a possible route to six wins: taking their three remaining home games and one of the three road contests.
So, somehow, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel.
Grade: There is life…for now.
Todd Orodenker can be reached at email@example.com.