TERRE HAUTE —
NFL teams welcome the bye week as a time for injuries to heal and players to take a well-deserved mental break from game competition.
At the NCAA Division III level, Rose-Hulman received a football bye last week that could not have come at a better place in the schedule.
“We had a nice week of practice,” Rose coach Jeff Sokol said. “And it actually fell during our school break, so we got to send the kids home for a few days. So it was good mentally and good physically.”
The Engineers will need all of their available talent back and healthy for Saturday. That’s when they’ll travel to Franklin to take on the perennial Division III powerhouse Grizzlies, who captured the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship last season and sit in a tie for first place with Hanover at 4-0 this season.
Game time is 1:30 p.m.
Rose-Hulman is 2-2 in the conference (2-4 overall) after playing almost two full games without running back Kyle Kovach, the school’s all-time leading rusher who has gained 572 yards on the ground in 2012.
Coincidentally or not, the Engineers lost those last two games — at Hanover (33-27 in overtime Sept. 29) and at home to Bluffton (37-34 in triple OT Oct. 6).
Sokol said Kovach, who’s recovering from a bone bruise in his foot that he suffered in the first half against Hanover, would not have been able to play if his squad had a game this past weekend. But with the extra week of rest, the 5-foot-8, 185-pound senior has a chance to play Saturday.
“We hope he’ll be back Saturday, but as of right now he’s day-to-day,” Sokol said over the weekend.
The Engineers’ second-year coach did not blame the heartbreaking defeats on Kovach’s absence.
“We’ve always talked about how good our backup running backs are,” he explained. “Our backup, junior Danya Francis, rushed for more than 100 yards in both of those games, so he’s doing a great job. … We’ve been a little more balanced between running and throwing without Kyle.”
But Sokol admitted that Kovach’s return will be appreciated whenever it does happen.
“Kyle is a breakaway threat that we definitely miss,” Sokol pointed out, “but Danya has done a great job of making the most of his opportunities.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Sokol realizes the losses to Hanover and Bluffton may have taken the Engineers out of the HCAC title hunt. Any hopes that remain hinge on beating Franklin this weekend.
Sokol took advantage of his rare gameless Saturday last weekend to scout the Grizzlies as they routed Anderson 69-0.
“They’re very, very solid on defense,” he said with much respect. “They don’t have any holes. They’re outstanding at throwing the football — very, very efficient. [Kyle] Linville is as good of a receiver as you’ll see at this level. Their quarterback, Jonny West, is really good. He throws very few incompletions.”
Sokol added that the Grizzlies aren’t perfect, but they’re not far from it.
“There’s definitely stuff that we think we can take advantage of,” he continued. “If they leave a little crack of an opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it quickly.”
Unfortunately for the Engineers, that’s something they didn’t do often enough in their two recent setbacks.
“You think about the different opportunities you had to make plays,” Sokol reflected. “It’s definitely frustrating. When you play so many close games, it’s easy to second-guess plays. But you just have to do what you have to do to win football games up ahead.”
The Rose coach praised the 2012 effort of senior quarterback Mitch Snyder of Casey, Ill. He’s completed 121 of 212 attempts for eight touchdowns and 1,224 yards with six interceptions.
“He’s having a nice season,” Sokol assessed. “He’s been a little up and down, but he’s taken a lot better care of the ball this season.”
One injured player who won’t be back for a while is junior safety T.J. Chin, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament early in the season.
Dealing with their fair share of adversity, the Engineers may be challenged to continue their string of seasons with .500 or better records. After Franklin, they’ll visit Mount St. Joseph on Oct. 27, return home for a Nov. 3 matchup against Anderson and finish off the season Nov. 10 with a home contest against Earlham.
The last year in which Rose didn’t finish at least .500 was 2004 when it ended up 4-6. Winning three out of the final four will be needed to keep the streak going through 2012.
“We didn’t do ourselves any favors by losing to Hanover and Bluffton in overtime,” Sokol acknowledged. “Obviously, if we were able to take better advantage of those situations, we’d be playing a championship-level game this Saturday. For us to have a chance of winning the conference now, we’d need a lot of help.
“It’s not everything we had hoped for, but we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves.”
• Rose-Hulman continues its season at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Franklin. The rest of the Engineers schedule is:
at Mount St. Joseph Oct. 27
Anderson Nov. 3
Earlham Nov. 10