New uniforms and the promise of a new conference affiliation don’t quite make up for what promises to be a grueling 2005 season for the football team.
The Owls, without a conference to call home for the first time since 1990, began what will be a two-year term as an Independent last Thursday with a loss at Arizona State. The 63-16 loss to the Sun Devils was the Owls’ first game since being removed from the Big East Conference at the end of last season. The Owls (0-1) travel to Wisconsin (1-0) on Saturday.
Over the next two seasons, the Owls will play 10 games against Mid-American Conference opponents before becoming a full member of the MAC in 2007. With a daunting schedule this season that includes eight 2004 bowls teams out of 11 total opponents, independence won’t be any easier than conference affiliation.
“It’s a transition we’re going through, going from the Big East Conference to the MAC. It’s going to take a few years,” Wallace said at the team’s media day Aug. 10. “We’re looking forward to that relationship with the MAC.”
Aside from the Independent schedule, a principle transition for the Owls will be at the quarterback position. Fifth-year senior Mike McGann, who redshirted last season, was the only quarterback on the Owls’ preseason depth chart before freshman Colin Clancy was tabbed as the early-season backup. With 29 starts under his belt, McGann will take over a position he lost to Walter Washington, a 2003 junior college transfer responsible for 72 percent of the Owls’ total offense last year.
The offensive playbook has a new look, too. The Owls, who ran a no-huddle spread offense last year, will utilize two-back sets more frequently under new offensive coordinator Willie Slater. The offense, which will still feature shotgun formations and favor the rushing game, caters more to McGann’s needs, Wallace said. Still, Wallace added last week, the offense can only cater so much. McGann will be relied upon to make plays.
The team’s two-headed running game of seniors Tim Brown and Umar Ferguson suffered a blow last week when it was announced that Brown had failed to meet NCAA academic standards and was ineligible for the season. Ferguson will be looked upon to pick up the rushing load left by Brown and Washington, the team’s leading rusher last year. Sophomore Mike Neal and senior Michael Billops both impressed coaches in camp and are expected to get some snaps this season, but their workloads will most likely increase in Brown’s absence.
Without the running game, Wallace said, a pass-oriented offense just won’t work.
“We’ve got to be able to run the football, take a little pressure off Mike,” Wallace said. “Mike’s a very talented player, but we don’t want him to have to carry the whole load. We want to be able to run the football so he can make plays when he needs to.”
Difficulties in the classroom for some Owls may cause problems for those on the field. In addition to Brown, six other Owls were declared ineligible. In all, five starters and two primary backups failed to meet NCAA requirements.
The defensive backfield could be another weak link. Inexperience was expected, but the rash of academic ineligibilities removed junior cornerback David Reese and senior strong safety Bobby Fulmore, both starters, from the fold.
Senior wide receiver Mike Holley will miss his second straight season by failing to meet eligibility standards. Holley, the team’s top wide out, was likely to fill the void of Ikey Chuku, Phil Goodman and Buchie Ibeh. The trio combined for 100 receptions for 1,478 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Junior Bruce Gordon moves up into Holley’s spot as one outside receiver, with senior Brian Allbrooks on the other side and junior Jamel Harris in the slot.
The ineligibilities had Wallace taken aback at a practice last week, but the eighth-year coach said the remaining players will have to be resilient.
“All our kids attend summer school. It came as a surprise,” Wallace said. “We’re going to be leaning heavily on some freshmen … and that’s not a good position to be in.”
The defensive front appears to be the Owls’ strong point. Four senior starters – defensive tackles Antwon Burton and Adam Fichter and defensive ends Mike Mendenhall and Rodney Wormley – will anchor an experienced defensive line.
Burton, who missed all of last season with a broken foot, possesses the size, athleticism, and quickness to attract attention from NFL scouts. According to him, the D-line as a whole will be dominant.
“[The linemen] all have different styles. We all bring different things to the table,” Burton said. “It’ll be effective.”
When asked if effectiveness means more sacks for a team that totaled just 13 all of last season, Burton said: “There’s going to be a lot more pocket penetration, a lot more sacks, a lot more quarterback harassment.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.