Colgate coach Dan Hunt was caught off-guard by the superb play of his Raiders last season and was prepared for a letdown, just not one quite so severe.
The Raiders opened 2018 unranked and rose all the way to No. 6 after nine consecutive victories, five of them shutouts to tie an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision record. They made the playoffs and finished 10-2 and ranked in the top 10 after leading the nation in scoring defense and total defense.
Picked in the preseason to repeat as Patriot League champions after finishing 6-0 in the conference, the Raiders are winless after five games as league play looms, injuries and inexperience big factors in their performance.
”When we saw the schedule come out and you lose 23 seniors, as coaches we all knew that a bad record after five games was going to be a possibility, 0-5 being one of them,” Hunt said. ”Obviously, I don’t think our players felt that way – they probably wouldn’t want to.”
The season began with a 34-14 home loss to Villanova , now ranked in the top 10 in both national polls. A 48-7 setback at Air Force put the Raiders at 0-2 in August, and losses to William & Mary (38-10), Maine (35-21), and Dartmouth (38-3) followed.
”The record’s not necessarily what’s really getting to me right now,” Hunt said. ”We’re just not improving, and that’s the frustrating part. We’ve had plenty of years where we’ve ended up with great years where we started off with a rough record, but you get better every week. I’m not sure if we’re doing that right now. Now, all of a sudden I worry that the kids are waiting for that play that’s going to deflate them.”
The difference in the two seasons so far is stunning.
In the first 10 games last year Colgate, located in Hamilton, New York, outscored its opponents 67-0 in the first quarter and did not trail in a game until Army scored a first-quarter touchdown in Game 11 . In their five nonconference games this season, the Raiders have been outscored 45-0 in the first quarter and have not led in any game.
”This is uncharted ground. It’s been tough. I’m not going to lie,” Hunt said. ”Our kids have been really resilient as far as coming to work every day and not losing the passion for practicing.”
That in itself is impressive when you also consider this: Colgate has been outscored 193-55 and ranks 119th in total offense (all three receivers entered the season with zero career catches); is averaging 2.9 yards per carry while allowing 5.7; and is tied for 109th in scoring defense, allowing nearly 39 points a game.
”I definitely didn’t foresee it,” senior defensive back Jordan Jefferson said. ”We added a lot of new players. I knew there was going to be some growing pains, but obviously no one comes into a season expecting to lose games like we have.
”But I feel like team morale is still high,” Jefferson added. ”I feel like the mistakes that we’ve made have been self-imposed, and I feel like we can correct those mistakes and kind of get things turned around and going in the right direction.”
The most disruptive injury was to junior quarterback Grant Breneman. The Patriot League preseason offensive player of the year has missed three games with an ankle injury (third-string quarterback Noah Rothman played against Dartmouth), while starting tailback Malik Twyman has been out the last two games.
”We’ve got a lot of guys that are playing for the first time and playing some really good teams,” said Breneman, who last season led the conference with a 61.8 completion percentage and a 133.64 pass efficiency rating. ”Some of the scores don’t really indicate how we’ve been playing and the injuries that we’ve had to battle through. But a lot of guys are coming back, so we’re pretty optimistic about the rest of the season.”
Although Colgate is 0-5 for the first time since the 1995 team finished 0-11 in Hunt’s first year on the staff as an assistant to Ed Sweeney, there’s a lot left to play for. League play starts Saturday with a home game against Lehigh – and it’s homecoming. If the Raiders go undefeated in conference play, they’ll be in the postseason again.
”It’s definitely a humbling experience, especially after the season we had last year,” Breneman said. ”Ultimately, the league is what matters. If you don’t win your league you’re probably not going to make the playoffs.”
Added Hunt: ”We still control our own destiny within our conference. It’s just unique in that if you are a sophomore on this team and you were a freshman last year you faced no adversity. Last year was such a dominant year.”
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