When the Georgetown football team defeated Holy Cross on the road last weekend, the Hoyas put themselves in position to complete a stunning turnaround for a program that is only two years removed from a winless season.
With a win at Lehigh on Nov. 12, sixth-year Coach Kevin Kelly and his team would earn the Patriot League title and the school’s first berth to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. It’s a possibility that seemed unfathomable after an 0-11 season in 2009 and almost as unlikely after a 4-7 season a year ago.
“You start to question yourself and what you’re doing,” Kelly said this week in his office at McDonough Arena, referring to the winless campaign. “So this is gratifying. We control our own destiny, so to speak. It’s taken some time to turn it around.”
On Saturday, the Hoyas (7-2, 3-1) host Fordham (1-7) with a chance to wrap up their first undefeated home slate of games in 13 years. (Although Fordham is in the Patriot League, the game does not count in the standings because the Rams began offering athletic scholarships in 2010, thus forfeiting their right to compete for the title.)
Then Georgetown gets its shot at the big prize a week later when the Hoyas travel to Bethlehem, Pa., to face a Lehigh team they have not defeated since 1925. Since the universities renewed their rivalry in 2001, in fact, the Hoyas are 0-10 against the Mountain Hawks, mustering a meager 23 points in the past four defeats.
Facing long odds, though, are nothing new for senior defensive lineman Andrew Schaetzke and his teammates.
“We have to reiterate that this is a different team,” said Schaetzke, who leads the Patriot League in tackles for a loss (171 / 2) and sacks (91 / 2) this season. “This is a Georgetown team that has beat Colgate and Holy Cross and Lafayette this year. We’re a different team than the teams have come before us. Now just have to go out there and play like it.”
Indeed, confidence — as well as wins — has been on the rise at Georgetown the past 24 months. The turnaround began with a drought-ending 20-10 victory at Davidson in September 2010, a triumph that, in the words of Kelly, “got the monkey off our back.” League victories over Lafayette and Holy Cross later that month reinforced the belief that the Hoyas could compete in the Patriot League.
“You could tell that we were getting some confidence, a swagger,” offensive lineman Ed Hesselgren said. “We started to believe that we could win these games, that we weren’t outmatched, that we deserved to be here.”
Although injuries and the inability to close out opponents late in games contributed to an eventual four-win season, the Hoyas arrived on campus last summer with a renewed sense of purpose. Weightlifting sessions were tougher. Preseason practices were faster and more precise. Expectations within the locker room grew.
The result has been Georgetown’s best season since a 9-2 campaign in 1999, its last in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
But their sudden success doesn’t mean that this season has unfolded without its challenges. The Hoyas opened 3-1 but found themselves at a crossroads following a 35-18 setback at Bucknell on Oct. 1. They came out flat, falling behind 28-0 in the first half.
“That was a pretty big turning point,” Hesselgren said. “I just stepped up and said: ‘That’s not who we are anymore. That’s not Georgetown football. We’re not going to lay down like that. We don’t want that to be our legacy.’ ”
The next morning, the team reported to the weight room at Yates Field House, where fifth-year senior Dan Linehan made an impassioned speech of his own and introduced a different way of motivating his teammates. Now, after each practice, the outspoken defensive lineman hands out a leather weightlifting belt to the player he feels has worked the hardest or performed the best that day.
“They get to be the champ for the day,” said Linehan, who has since been sidelined for the season with a knee injury. “Everyone was kind of down after the Bucknell loss, so I grabbed the belt, jumped up on one of the racks and started yelling like a fool.”
Schaetzke added, “Guys take [the belt] seriously.”
The Hoyas beat Wagner, 24-10, the next week and haven’t lost since thanks to a stingy and opportunistic defense, an efficient offense and the big-play ability of its special teams.
The defense is led by Schaetzke, safety Wayne Heimuli, lineman Jordan Richardson, and linebackers Robert McCabe and Dustin Wharton, who rank 1-2 in the Patriot League with 107 and 82 tackles, respectively. Playing a 3-4 scheme, the unit ranks second in the league in both interceptions (14) and fumbles recovered (13) and third in total defense (320 yards per game), and has been especially potent the past four weeks. In the wins over Wagner, Howard, Colgate and Holy Cross, the unit has yielded a total of four touchdowns and an average of nine points.
The offense has been paced by quarterback Isaiah Kempf (1,162 yards passing, 358 rushing) and running back Nick Campanella (426 yards, seven touchdowns). The standouts on special teams, meanwhile, have been punt returner Kevin Macari, who is second in FCS with a 16.6-yard average, and place kicker Brett Weiss, who is 11 for 16 on field goals with a long of 49 yards.
The next two weeks, however, won’t be about individuals, several players said. It’s going to be about the collective and, more important, establishing a new tradition at Georgetown.
“If we can establish a tradition of success and winning, those things continue through the years,” Hesselgren said. “If you can get a tradition where you don’t accept losing and know that you can win games, you pass that down. That’s what creates a successful program.”