It’s been a lopsided year so far for Marist football, who picked up their first PFL win last Saturday against the Valparaiso Beacons in a stunning overtime victory, 36-30.
In fact, the victory was such a standout that it became the first highlight reel shown on ESPN’s College Football Final Saturday evening.
What the box score doesn’t show is that before this game, Marist’s first two opponents outscored them 98-28 combined. It does show that Marist was down 14-3 in the first quarter, meaning opponents outscored them 112-31 before junior quarterback Brock Bagozzi led a comeback effort in the second quarter.
When redshirt running back Amin Woods rushed into the end zone to win the game, the Red Foxes gathered around and went into a frenzy. It was a desperately-needed win to salvage the beginning of the Marist season, with an opportunity to string two wins together at home against Stetson tomorrow.
“Being 0-2 and down 14-3 in the next one, it could get bad in a hurry,” said head coach Jim Parady. “I was just happy for the guys in that locker room. The celebration after the game was great; these guys have worked hard to get that reward.”
The Red Foxes were lost on offense the first two games. With a 37.5% completion rate against Davidson, Parady planned to utilize two quarterbacks against the Valparaiso Beacons; he quickly abandoned his plan when Bagozzi led a 90-yard touchdown drive that kicked off with a 45-yard pass to redshirt senior receiver Will Downes.
“Brock [Bagozzi] made plays in this game that were not on the call sheet,” said Parady. “He responded to the competition, and he joked around with me saying, ‘it must be a week three thing.’”
Week three last year was Bagozzi’s best game of the 2022 season, where he led the Red Foxes to their first PFL win with a passing, rushing, and receiving touchdown. Last Saturday, the Red Foxes were down by a touchdown two separate times in the fourth quarter and Bagozzi never faltered. His arm talent and athleticism shined–particularly on third down– and he used his legs occasionally to burn the Valparaiso defense.
Evidently, the Red Fox defense also made strides last week. Even without all-PFL linebacker and captain Arthur Pinckey, who was scratched from the game due to a “team issue” according to Parady, they made stops in key moments. During overtime, Marist sacked Valparaiso redshirt sophmore quarterback Mike Appel on third down of the Beacon’s first possession, which led to a missed field goal, setting up Marist with an easy path to victory.
A clear query to solve is on special teams, which led to much frustration on the Marist sidelines after a punt went directly through the hands of freshmen Joe Neubecker on fourth down, leading to a Beacon touchdown the next play. Though the ball went through the punter’s hands towards the opposing end zone, the defense could have avoided a corresponding touchdown if Neubecker took the ball past the end zone for a safety.
Parady took part of the blame for the underwhelming play on special teams, citing it as a necessary issue to address to stay in close games.
“That situation hopefully never happens again. If it does, instead of giving up seven, we give up two, and we get a little bit different momentum.”
Marist is now one of the five teams in the conference with a PFL win so far (though Marist is the only team to play two conference games instead of one). The key to flipping their season momentum is improving their 1-5 home record from a year ago, and that starts with defeating Stetson this weekend.
“We’ve talked about getting better on our home field,” said Parady. “And what it comes down to is doing all that cliché stuff of gaps, coverages and mental stuff. But when you do those things, good things happen.”
To get past the mental block, the Red Foxes will have to get past Stetson’s stout secondary. Though Downes and fellow receiver redshirt junior Matt Stianche combined for 192 yards, they’ll be matched up against a Stetson defensive backfield that ranked first in passing defense efficiency in the 2022 season.
Parady expects to see man coverage looks in a 3-5-3 stack formation, meaning a heavy linebacker presence in the middle of the field complementing the strong secondary; the formation is similar to Marist’s own defensive alignment.
“They can come after you really hard in a lot of blitz situations because they have eight defenders around the box right, or they can play coverage where they rush three [defenders] and drop the eight so well,” said Parady.
Leading the backfield is redshirt senior Rassie Littlejohn, coming off a First Team All-PFL campaign leading the conference in interceptions and passes defended. Parady compared his play to former Marist safety and UT-Chattanooga graduate student Clay Fields, a ball-hawking defender with quick instincts and a great deal of success against the pass.
Marist has been leaning on their proficient receiving core duo of Downes and Stianche, and will need to continue to get them one-on-one looks to be successful in the passing game. The key will be for them to stay on the field; Downes missed the first game with an injury. Marist is also without redshirt senior Brandon Lombana for “a couple more weeks” with an ankle injury, according to Parady.
At the moment, Stetson appears to have two quarterbacks competing for the starting job: Matt O’Conner, a Villanova transfer and graduate student, and junior Brady Meitz, who threw a whopping four interceptions last season in the 45-31 Red Fox win. It’s unclear what to expect from the Mad Hatters on offense.
Marist had a much better go on defense against the Beacons, but speed from the Mad Hatters number one option–First Team All-PFL receiver redshirt senior Soloman Davis–made Marist safeties miss all day. Parady mentioned the speed threats Marist will have to contain on Stetson to keep the score in reach for the offense.
One thing is for sure; after starting the year with a few blowout losses, Bagozzi looked comfortable commanding the offense last week. It’s up to him and his receiving core to hold up their end of the bargain once again.
Edited By Luke Sassa
Photo Credit: Kira Crutcher