The Mid-Season Marist Football Roundtable

The Marist Red Foxes have a .500 record roughly halfway through their season, their first taste of competitive football in two years. Several players are excelling on both sides of the ball. Four Center Field writers have joined forces to give their takes on Marist’s season to this point and what the Red Foxes can do moving forward.

How are you feeling about the team’s performance to this point?

Sam DiGiovanni: I feel very good about how the Foxes have fared so far. Their first two games, both blowout losses, weren’t very pretty. But now that they’re facing teams more of their caliber they’ve been better than I thought. The offense has enough weapons to sustain drives and break off big gains and the defense has been outstanding, allowing one of the lowest opponent point totals in the PFL. 

It was very hard to set expectations for this season but Marist has put up a strong fight against PFL opponents. For their postseason hopes to be this legitimate this far into the season is a great sight to behold. They play with infectious energy and passion, which should benefit them greatly down the homestretch.

Kevin Chin: The Red Foxes have vastly overperformed through the first half of the season. Considering they basically had a two-year sabbatical from live play, it makes their current run that much more impressive. Their entire 2020 season was lost due to COVID-19 and a Georgetown outbreak and early bye week delayed their first game until week 3. Yet, despite all this adversity, the team has stayed persistent.

Following a tough 0-2 start against Columbia and Bryant, the Red Foxes have dominated conference play, winning the next three games in grand fashion, from an overtime thriller at Valparaiso to a dominating rout of Stetson. This team has not just been fun to watch but has shown the entire PFL what good football looks like. Entering the season, a lot of people doubted this team, and despite a difficult loss against Morehead State, they still have a real shot at winning the conference.

Andrew Hard: I believe this answer will be unanimous with everyone keeping a keen eye on Red Fox football, and that is the team is doing better than anticipated. I truly believe that the tough schedule to begin the season (at Columbia and the home opener vs. Bryant) drastically helped the team prepare for PFL play.

Even though those games were blowouts in the box score, the team on both offense and defense showed signs that they could compete on a high level. The offense has shown out as of late, with the Austin Day-to-Dwayne Menders combination proving to be a deadly one. The defense has also shown great effort including making incredible hustle plays, although they seem to get worn out in the second half of games. I believe that was the biggest factor in what cost them their first PFL loss against Morehead State.

Luke Sassa: After back-to-back lackluster performances in the season opener against Columbia and home opener against Bryant, the Red Foxes have shown tremendous improvement and created cause for optimism. Their 3-1 record in the month of October stands out as particularly encouraging, with their only loss coming to a 5-2 Morehead State team in a game that was decided in the final 90 seconds.

The health of starting quarterback Austin Day has been key in the team’s resurgence, as the senior has a five-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio since returning from injury against Valparaiso. His satisfactory-if-not-spectacular performance through the air has helped the offense stay on the field, as the Red Foxes have possessed the ball for over 30 minutes per game on average over the past four games.

This is in stark contrast to the first two games, in which they failed to possess the ball for more than 25 minutes in either contest. The offense’s ability to hold onto the football has coincided with improved performance on defense, resulting in a plus-five turnover differential in the four games since Day’s return.

What player(s) has been the most valuable to the team?

Sam: There are a lot of players on both sides of the ball who deserve praise. I am going to focus on wide receiver Dwayne Menders and linebacker Mike Arrington, who have been the biggest difference makers so far in my eyes. 

Menders has shouldered a huge offensive workload so far and has excelled. His ability to rack up receiving yards has been a hugely important part of the offense, especially when it comes to moving the chains. He and quarterback Austin Day love attacking defenses over the middle of the field, routinely picking up 15 or more yards when Menders cuts inward from the slot. Day deserves appreciation, too, as he has led this offense masterfully.

Arrington has been one of the key defensive players this season. He has totaled 61.0 tackles, seven and a half tackles for loss and four sacks, which are all among the best marks on the team. He is far from the only defender excelling for this unit — safety Kyle Fleitman, linebacker Jayden Johnson and safety Teddy Wright deserve lots of credit — but as a team captain and the man in the middle, Arrington sets the tone.

Kevin: Offensively, Marist is stacked with weapons. Coach Jim Parady has an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent on his roster. However, one player, in particular, is having a season for the ages. Redshirt junior Dwayne Menders has been absolutely phenomenal, putting up some absurd numbers. In six games, Menders has 40 receptions for 467 yards and three touchdowns. This includes two 10+ reception/140+ yard games. He has been the Red Foxes’ first option all season because of his playmaking ability and clutch factor.

Another stand-out performer has been redshirt senior Mekhai Johnson. The running back has been great at making timely plays when the team needs it most. Whether he is leading the team at Dayton with a huge kickoff return touchdown or putting the team on his back with the ground game, Johnson has proven his worth.

Andrew: Everyone’s going to say redshirt junior wide receiver Dwayne Menders, and to be honest, he should be the consensus pick with his explosive playmaking ability throughout the season. I’m going to go in the opposite direction though, and give some love to this linebacking corps!

Mike Arrington, Jayden Johnson, and Arthur Pinckney all have made critical plays in their wins. They have combined to record 163 total tackles, including 14.5 tackles for loss. They have proven to be sure-handed tacklers, rarely missing free runners. They have stopped a number of potential chunk plays, and even saved some games (look at Dayton’s final drive).

I’m going to continue hyping up the defense by giving a shoutout to redshirt senior safety Teddy Wright. Number five has been racking up the steps on his FitBit, showing up all over the field for the Red Foxes. He’s third on the team with 44.0 total tackles, second in the tackles for loss category with five, and also has two interceptions (both in key wins against Valparaiso and Dayton). His all-around play has been and will continue to be critical in Marist’s success.

Luke: The offensive MVP to this point has to be receiver Dwayne Menders, as he leads the team in all major receiving categories including receptions, yards, touchdowns, and yards per game. The redshirt junior has averaged nearly seven receptions per game while using his plus speed to gain separation on opposing defensive backs, with receptions of at least 20 yards in four of his six games. This ability was on display in the third quarter on Saturday against Morehead State, when he lined up in the slot and scored a 25-yard touchdown on a post route after quickly slicing his way through zone coverage and blowing the top off of the secondary.

On the defensive side of the ball, safety Clayborne Fields III has been a difference-maker this season, as the redshirt junior has used his athleticism to make game-changing plays. He leads the team with four pass breakups and two interceptions, none more impressive than the acrobatic pick he made off of Bryant quarterback Zevi Eckhaus.

Linebacker Mike Arrington has also made his presence felt, leading the team in tackles-for-loss, sacks, and winning PFL defensive player of the week for his performance in the Red Fox’s blowout win over Stetson.

What does the team have to do to keep up its momentum?

Sam: I think one way the team can keep winning is by leaning on their ground game a little bit more. They have two running backs — Hunter Cobb and Mekhai Johnson — that average at least 4.5 yards per carry, which is a very impressive feat. Relying on them more should allow them to tire out opposing defenses, chew up the clock and get promising gains with either running back. It could also allow the passing game to open more.

Defensively, I think they could improve on getting pressure on the quarterback. By no means have they done a bad job but it’s an area that would benefit them the most if they improved in it. The two-platoon system for their defensive line seems to be operating as it should, with guys like Aaron Acosta and Jacob Abill creating trouble for offensive lines.

Kevin: Consistency is key. The offensive line has to protect the quarterback and the defense needs to stay vigilant, especially down the stretch of games. The Morehead State game got away because they could not make the stops when necessary. Their defense has done well to contain opposing offenses, but they need to stay strong for the entire sixty minutes. If they can avoid making costly mistakes late in the game, they will have no problem winning.

Andrew: I very much agree with Kevin’s analysis here. Austin Day has been forced to scramble around sooner than he wants at times because his pocket breaks down. Sometimes this leads to a long run but most of the time it leads to forced throws on the run or little to no gains in yards. The offensive line has to be able to hold their ground and give Marist’s explosive outside weapons time to run their routes and for Day to throw an accurate ball that’s on time. Day absolutely has the arm talent to make those throws, but he needs time to be able to throw them.

On the other side of the ball, I believe that the defensive front needs to be able to generate some pressure to affect opposing quarterbacks, and I believe that they have done a much better job recently at doing so, even if stat sheets show you low sack numbers. 

Luke: The run defense needs to build upon the improvements they made against Morehead State. Prior to Saturday, the Red Foxes had surrendered 183 rushing yards per game on average before only allowing 55 yards on the ground to Morehead State on a paltry 1.9 yards per carry. Improving in this area will allow the Red Fox defense to get off of the field and get the ball back to the offense, which needs to do a better job of establishing the run game.

Giving more carries to Hunter Cobb and Mekhai Johnson will be the key to controlling the clock, as neither back has received more than 13 carries over the last three games despite their overall efficiency on the ground this season.

Improving their offensive and defensive performance on the ground will be easier said than done for the Red Foxes next week against St. Thomas, as their run game has thrived in recent weeks, while their defense has held opponents to under 3.5 yards per carry in four of their six games this season. 

What are your predictions for the second half of the season? Can Marist win the PFL title?

Sam: The second-half schedule for Marist currently features three teams with losing records. I think they’ll drop one of their final four games and win the other three. Two of their wins have been decided by just three points and they did just lose another close one to Morehead State. The Red Foxes have shown they’re capable of taking care of business against inferior opponents, which is incredibly important in a crowded playoff race.

I don’t see any reason why the Red Foxes can’t compete for the title. With a strong defense and an offense that can break off big plays and drive down the field with a variety of weapons, they should give any team a real fight.

Kevin: Marists’ most recent loss will hurt their chances, but it does not knock them out of contention. Their remaining schedule does play into their favor. The only opponent they face above .500 will be at St. Thomas this upcoming week. Therefore, if the Red Foxes can defeat them, the rest of the way should theoretically be a breeze. Their final three opponents – Drake, Presbyterian and Butler – are a combined 1-13 in conference play.

However, even if Marist does win out, they are going to need help from other teams as they are currently fourth in the conference. It will be very interesting to see how the second half will play out, but Marist can win the PFL title if they are playing at their best.

Andrew: The second half of the schedule is considerably weaker than Marist’s first half, so I can’t see why they can’t go on a tear to end the season. St. Thomas is the only remaining team with a winning record on their schedule so that will be a tough out. I believe that game will be critical in Marist’s PFL title hopes, and then they have to be able to go out and perform the next three weeks after.

My bold prediction for the rest of the year is that the running attack is going to get ramped up, especially for the final 3 games. I think Hunter Cobb and Mekhai Johnson are going to have field days against defenses that have all given up nearly 300 yards rushing in a game at some point this season. Getting the two backs going will be critical in Marist controlling games.

Luke: The last month of the schedule certainly holds potential for the Red Foxes, with their toughest matchup coming next week against a 4-2 St. Thomas team. After that, the Red Foxes face three teams that are well below .500 in Drake, Presbyterian, and Butler, giving them a solid chance to win out if they can keep their best players healthy and rise to the occasion against St. Thomas.

They probably need to win all of their remaining games in order to end up on top of the standings, as none of the teams in front of them have more than two losses compared to the Red Foxes, who have three. They certainly have an outsider’s chance at a PFL title, as their schedule appears to be easier than that of Davidson and Morehead State.

Edited by Bridget Reilly and Jonathan Kinane

Photo from Jonathan Kinane

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