Coach Jeff Pedersen ’02 and the Grinnell football coaching staff knew it wouldn’t be easy replacing All-Conference wide receivers Robert Seer ’12 and Logan Granera ’12 (from a team that passed for over 3000 yards last season), but what they didn’t count on was losing starting quarterback Mike McCabe ’13.
After violating team rules during the pre-season, McCabe was dismissed from the squad, leaving the Pioneers without most of their offensive output from last season. The graduation of receivers Seer, Granera and Harpreet Singh-Mann ’12, paired with the dismissal from school of Jason Peters ’14 and the transfer of Trent Baker ’15 leave the Pioneers with only one player, Cody Weber ’13 with more than three receptions from last year and no players with any passing experience.
However, Grinnell does have running back T.J. Schaid ’13 back this year, after sitting out essentially all of the 2011 campaign with an injury.
“[Schaid] was All-Conference as a sophomore, so to get him back is huge,” Coach Pedersen said.
New to the Pioneers this year is quarterback Sam Poulos ’16, who was thrown into the starting role after McCabe’s dismissal.
“It put me in shock at first. I was kind of surprised, but a bunch of people came up to me and told me they believed in me so I had a lot of confidence and I knew I’d be able to step up,” Poulos said.
“[Poulos] has intangibles you want in a quarterback. I’m sure anyone would say that,” defensive lineman Brian Taylor ’13 said. “He’s done a great job of being a leader, even as a freshman.”
“We weren’t quite sure what we had in Sam, at quarterback. We were optimistic, but you always hope you can bring those guys along slowly. But from day one, even when he was backing up McCabe, he’s acted with the confidence and leadership skills of a veteran. We feel like we’re in good hands at quarterback, even with a first-year,” Coach Pedersen said.
Like Poulos, other players stepped up to fill vacant positions from the past year. Taylor noticed that this created some positive results.
“Knowing that Logan [Granera] and Seer were going to leave … some of our younger guys took the initiative to step up in the off-season,” he said.
Fortunately, the pre-season went well. Despite the loss of McCabe and the fact that it went longer than usual, Taylor and Pedersen agreed on its success.
“It was a longer pre-season … but it didn’t drag at the end,” Taylor said.
“It was probably the most enjoyable pre-season I’ve had,” Pedersen said.
On Saturday, September 1, the Pioneers played their first game of the season at home against non-conference opponent Carleton College. After the Pioneers lead 14-0 at halftime, Carleton tied the game and sent it to overtime, where they eventually won 20-14 in a nail-biter.
The Pioneers out-gained the Knights 305 yards to 219 and ran 27 more plays of offense, but could not capitalize on their opportunities in the redzone. Grinnell scored twice in the first quarter on 27 and 28 yard passes, respectively, but went zero for five in the redzone.
“Once you get that close, you’ve gotta score and get points out of it,” Poulos said.
Coach Pedersen noted the redzone troubles and the need to make positive plays, especially when they were close to the opposition’s end zone.
“We’ve got to minimize the negative plays … If [we] eliminate the negative plays, it’s going to give us a much better chance for success,” Pedersen said.
“Everyone has to focus on doing their role … and try to limit the mistakes,” Taylor said.
Poulos stressed the fact that the Pioneers beat themselves rather than the Knights defeating them.
“I really don’t think it was anything they did. … I don’t think they ever really stopped us. We stopped ourselves,” he said.
Poulos played well in his first career college game, going 22 for 35 with 253 yards and two scores, though he did throw two interceptions and was sacked three times. Receiver Weber especially shined, catching nine passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Other offensive leaders included Max Jacobson ’14, who nearly doubled his career receptions with seven catches for 46 yards and Schaid, who carried the ball 30 times for 95 yards. On the defensive side of the ball, David Ternes ’15 and Taylor led the team with 10 and eight tackles, respectively.
Weber’s big day could open up other offensive options, as defenses may now focus on him.
“Teams are going to start keying on Cody [Weber]. They’re going to be looking for him to get the ball, so other guys have to be ready,” Poulos said.
On Saturday, fatigue seemed to be a factor, as the Pioneers outscored the Knights 14-0 in the first quarter, but faltered after that. With 44 players on the roster, the Pioneers have a clear disadvantage against larger teams, such as Illinois College, which they play this Saturday, September 8. Despite the fact that the Blueboys have roughly three times as many players as Grinnell, the Pioneers remain confident that they can come out with a victory.
“They can only still play eleven at a time,” Pedersen said.
Despite being 0-1, the Pioneers are 0-0 in the Midwest Conference, meaning the loss did not set them back in the hunt for the conference title.
“The only good thing about losing on Saturday is that it was non-conference … we still have a pretty tough schedule ahead of us, but there isn’t a team on the schedule we believe we can’t beat,” Taylor said.
“If we play at our best … we could be at the top of the conference at the end of the season,” Poulos said.
The quest for a conference title begins on Saturday.
“This weekend is the first big test,” Poulos said.