For the first time since 2002, the football team is playing for more than just bragging rights at Homecoming. With its spotless 6-0 mark, this 2013 squad has done an immaculate job of revitalizing Cardinal football, and the upcoming matchup on Saturday, Nov. 3 against Williams is the chance for the ultimate redemption. After defeating Amherst in the first leg of Little Three play, the Cardinals have placed themselves in an unfamiliar position: championship territory. A win over the 2-4 Ephs would mean the first outright Little Three championship for Wes since 1970. Additionally, since Wesleyan is the last remaining unbeaten NESCAC team, a Cardinal victory this Saturday would also mean at least a share of the conference championship for the first time in school history. With all of this riding on Saturday’s rivalry matchup, the Redbirds are ready to realize their destiny.
For current NESCAC Offensive Player of the Week LaDarius Drew ’15, remaining humble despite achieving unparalleled levels of success this season will be key.
“I speak for all of us when I say we expect a real battle with the Ephs,” Drew said. “We have to keep doing what we’re doing on and off the field to prepare, just like any other team. Just looking at last year, we did not play to the full potential of Wesleyan football. This year, we’ve been able to tap into our playmaking sources on all sides of the ball, so we’re definitely capable of putting up a bigger fight than we did last year.”
With nine touchdowns on the year and an average of 109.2 rushing yards per game, Drew has been the premier runner in the conference, leading a running back corps that has powered the Wesleyan offense this season. With Drew in the backfield, the Cardinals have been able to bulldoze through NESCAC defenses, leaving them to gunslinger Jesse Warren ’15 and his aerial assault. Head Coach Mike Whalen deeply emphasized the role Drew will need to play in the upcoming games as well as the strength of the team overall.
“For LaDarius, it’s all about being healthy,” Whalen said. “He’s been healthy this year, but there are times where he hasn’t been 100 percent, and he still performed well. But Saturday [against Bowdoin] was probably as good as he’s felt in a long time. He ran hard and broke a lot of tackles. He worked fast, which was the reason why we kept giving him the ball. We know that we’re going to need all of our backs for these next two games because they’re going to be really physical games. The fact that we have great depth in that position is going to bode well for our football team.”
With running mate and fellow NESCAC rushing leader Kyle Gibson ’15 severely limited over the past few weeks due to injury, Drew has been called upon time and time again to bear the weight of the Wesleyan offense. Success against Williams will come only with a balanced assault that incorporates all of the Cardinals’ backs, including John Vassar ’16 and Lou Stevens ’17, who have been instrumental in maintaining the pace of the Cardinals’ offense, particularly in the second half.
Although it may seem like Drew and the gang will have an easy time running roughshod over atypically underperforming Williams, Whalen, who served as the Ephs’ head coach for six seasons, still holds a great deal of respect for his former squad.
“The first thing about Williams is that their record is not an accurate assessment of their talent level,” he said. “They might be the best 2-4 team in the country. They have good players. All you have to do is watch their games where they’re beating Trinity in the fourth quarter and beating Middlebury in the fourth quarter. They made some mistakes that cost them, but talent-wise they’ve played the best teams in the league, and they play them tough.”
Regardless of what has happened so far in its season, Williams still has the opportunity to play championship-caliber football in its last two games of the season against Wesleyan and Amherst. The Ephs’ early-season struggles can be easily washed away with another Little Three title, and the opportunity to knock off Wesleyan during a year of great resurgence sweetens the deal even further.
For defensive standout Nik Powers ’15, the undefeated Cardinals still need to prove themselves to the world by downing the Ephs and taking the Little Three.
“The stage couldn’t be bigger,” Powers said. “These next two weeks, specifically our game against Williams, are the reason our team has come together to work for a championship. This game means a lot to prove that we are the team we think we are.”
Despite having outscored opponents 217-50 to date, the Cardinals of 2013 retain the character of an unproven squad. The Birds are viewing the Homecoming game and the season-ending showdown at Trinity on Saturday, Nov. 10 as the playoffs, according to Whalen, which gives players the chance to prove their mettle.
“Our approach last week going into the Bowdoin game was that it was the last game of our regular season,” Whalen said. “The next two games are playoff games. We don’t go to the playoffs, we don’t go into the NCAAs. We knew that if we beat Bowdoin, then no matter what happened in Week Seven, we gave ourselves the opportunity to play in two championship games, one for the Little Three Championship and one for the NESCAC Championship. And we’re excited about that.”
For the Cardinal players on the field, this Saturday will be the biggest game of their athletic careers. If they are successful in their pursuits, it may also be the first time many Cardinal fans witness a football championship on Andrus Field. The prospects of this game have Drew feeling blessed.
“To me, winning the Little Three would be like an early Christmas present that will last me forever,” he said. “I feel the same about the NESCAC championship. I’ve talked to some alumni and older students, and this program has come a long way, and I’m ecstatic to be a part of it. I’m honored to have made my family and the alumni as happy as they are now, and I plan on not disappointing them. I just have the utmost confidence in us that we can achieve the goals we’ve set since my freshman year.”