Centre football ready to host NCAA first-round game

Published 6:34 pm Thursday, November 15, 2018

For the third time ever, Centre College is in the Division III NCAA tournament.

The Colonels (9-1) will host Washington & Jefferson (9-1) Saturday at noon at Farris Stadium.

It’s just the second time Centre has hosted a NCAA tournament game, the last being in 2011 when the Colonels beat Hampden-Sydney College 51-41.

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“Our guys, this has always been our objective to, as we say, ‘pursue excellence with a vengeance,’” Centre head coach Andy Frye said “Our goal is to always win the conference and to compete for a national championship.”

Centre earned a share of the regular-season Southern Athletic Association title with its 9-1 record, the lone loss coming in overtime against Berry (9-1) in the fourth week of the season.

“Quite honestly, by probably the fourth week of the season, we didn’t know where we stood after the Berry loss,” Frye said. “We got some help. Our strength of schedule ended up pushing us in, not only into the playoffs but to be able to host. Hanover winning their conference and Maryville winning their conference and getting an AQ, we ended up being I think seventh overall in strength of schedule in all of Division-III. That was the impetus. Then to come out with a share of the conference championship, that was just icing on the cake.”

Centre’s win over Trinity (7-3) was another critical victory: Trinity played a close game with D-III powerhouse Hardin-Simmons (9-1) and beat Berry in the last game of the season.

“The conference overall is just, quite frankly, so much stronger now,” Frye said. “It’s a better conference than it was seven years ago when it formed. Everyone now is playing well.”

During the NCAA tournament presentation, the Colonels expected to be in the tournament — but who and where they’d play were up in the air.

“We were kind of under the impression that we were going to have to go up to Trine to play,” Frye said. “Because of that, we didn’t know. Then Mt. Union had their game, and all of a sudden, Centre came up first and we knew that we were hosting. That’s huge, the kids were extremely excited and they should be. The fact that we get to host it is a nice compliment to this football team.”

The Washington & Jefferson Presidents, ranked 17th in the D3football.com poll, will be playing in their 26th NCAA tournament. The Presidents average just under 40 points per game and are led by an electric passing attack: Quarterback Jacob Adams has completed 201-of-311 passes for 2,658 yards and 32 touchdowns to nine interceptions. His favorite target, Andrew Wolf, caught Frye’s eye right away.

“They’re obviously well coached and they’ve got some really good football players,” Frye said. “They should, that’s why they’re in the playoffs, we do too. I like what they do offensively, they’ve got a really good wide receiver, their running backs run hard and their line is big. Their quarterback makes plays. He’s got a nice arm, he can get it to where he wants to get it. They take advantage of (Wolf), he’s legit.”

Wolf has 78 catches for 1,337 yards and 21 touchdowns this year. He leads all of D-III in yards and touchdowns.

But the Colonels have an impressive offense of their own: Record-setting wide receiver Jaylon Hibbs has 52 catches for 1,076 yards and 12 scores. Quarterback Tanner Young has hit 145-of-247 passes for 29 scores and 10 picks.

“Our quarterback Tanner Young is having an outstanding year,” Frye said. “He’s one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Then Jaylon Hibbs has obviously had over 1,000 yards of receiving, he’s one of the premier wide receivers. What gives us strength, especially offensively, Jaylon is a weapon. They have to find him on the field. But we’ve also got Jordan Gunter and Cody Estep and a number of wide receivers who are just as dangerous.”

Centre also has a strong backfield duo in Colin Burnam (138 carries, 734 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Trevor Carnell (119-680-8).

“We’ve got the two best running backs in our conference that share time,” Frye said. “Between Colin Burnam and Trevor Carnell, we’re real good. Then our offensive line is just playing really well.”

Frye said the Presidents’ defense will challenge the Colonels with its length.

“Defensively, they’re long. They’re big, tall guys. Their defensive secondary is all 6-foot-1, 6-foot-2,” Frye said. “Their defensive line is all 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, they’re just tall kids and they run well. That’s where their strength is.”

Frye likes the way his team has peaked toward the end of the season and likes where his team is entering the playoffs.

“That’s the best thing that has happened, we’re so much better than we were after the fifth game of the season,” he said. “I can tell we’ve started to hit on all cylinders, as they say. That has to do with our guys preparation, our scout team preparation. I think that’s a tribute to our coaches, I think they’ve done a great job teaching, demanding and preparing.”

The Centre defense has allowed 20 points or fewer in eight of 10 games this season.

“Defensively, our defensive ends are playing well, our linebacker play has obviously improved and then we’ve got two really good corners in John Wilson and Cal Lewellyn,” Frye said. “Andrew Busby is playing really well. It’s going to be a great matchup.”

Frye said he wants his team to play “clean football” on Saturday.

“I think in these types of games, with the high caliber of play, it’s mental errors,” the coach said. “You can’t have bad penalties because those kill drives. Either team can’t make mistakes, because as Joe Paterno used to say, there’s five or six plays that change the outcome of the game. It just depends on what five or six those will be. We have to got to play clean. I want our kids to play soundly, fundamentally. Two, I think field position will have a lot to do with it, that has to do with special teams. Where can you line up your punts, kickoff, where you are. Those are the two big things: Playing clean and field position.”

Frye said he hopes to see the Danville community rally around its collegiate team on Saturday.

“I think they could see an outstanding football game,” he said. “I firmly believe Danville can be a college town, we’ve got two of the best high school football programs in the state, this is a nice football town. I hope, like they support the Boyle and Danville football teams, I hope the same for Centre College. It’s their college.”