Raider Football Back For More And Ready To Go In 2004

Last year, the bar was raised for the Colgate football team. And raised. And raised some more. The Raiders won a school-record 15 games in a row in 2003 en route to the Patriot League title and the 1-AA National Championship game. Along the way, the team garnered a good deal of national attention for the university. Last December, you could have read about Colgate’s success in the New York Times while watching head coach Dick Biddle on ESPN’s “Cold Pizza” and recalling having seen senior running back Jamaal Branch on Sportscenter’s Top Ten the night before. But with all of that attention come off-the-charts expectations for 2004. The Raiders are ranked fifth nationally by The Sports Network’s 1-AA preseason poll and Branch is already a leading candidate to repeat as the winner of the Walter Payton Award, given to the best 1-AA football player in the land. With all of this hype, Colgate would surely be feeling the pressure of doing it all over again, right? The Raiders’ reply is simple: Pressure? What pressure?”Teams in previous years always looked at us as the team to beat anyway, so I don’t think that there is any added pressure this year,” senior tri-captain Antrell Tyson said. “We just have to take each game one at a time and focus on how we can win each week.”Tyson’s teammates echo his sentiments. “I feel in the four years that I have been here that we have always had a target on our back,” senior tri-captain Luke Graham said. “I feel like there is no added pressure [this season].”Colgate has certainly been the team to beat as of late. The Raiders’ 24 victories over the last two years makes Colgate the winningest 1-AA program in that time. The team has not had a losing season since the arrival of head coach Dick Biddle in 1996. With the core of last year’s potent offense intact and a defense full of hungry young players, the 2004 Raiders seem ready to continue the success that the Biddle era has brought to Hamilton. The only question is how far they can go.Led by the trio of Branch, Graham and senior tri-captain Chris Brown, Colgate’s offense racked up 30 points per game in 2003, outscoring its opponents 480 to 303 in 16 games. Branch won last year’s Walter Payton Award by setting 1-AA records for rushing yards (2,326), carries (450), touchdowns (29) and 100-yard games (12). Often overshadowed by the running back’s domination on the ground was Brown and Graham’s aerial prowess. The two connected 77 times in 2003 for 1,140 yards and eight touchdowns. The big three all enter their senior campaigns with Colgate records in rushing, passing and receiving within their respective reach. But gaudy numbers do not concern the Raiders. “I really don’t think about topping any performances,” Graham said of breaking his own school record for receiving yards in a season. “I’m more interested in winning the game. I would rather have a win than have 12 catches and a loss.”Brown and Graham will continue to pile up yardage through the air. Branch’s numbers, however, will almost certainly see a decline from last year. With the inevitable focusing of opposing defenses on the run, combined with the return to the lineup of junior Ray LaMonica, the Raiders’ leading rusher in 2002, it will be difficult for Branch to match the personal achievements of a year ago.”For Jamaal to have the same kind of season would be like Barry Bonds hitting 70 home runs back-to-back,” Biddle said. “Last year was a once-in-a-lifetime season for him and it would be nearly impossible to duplicate that.”Having LaMonica shoulder some of the burden of the running game may be a blessing for the Raiders, as Branch will be fresh in the fourth quarter when Colgate may need his punishing runs most.Going into the season, it is Colgate’s defense that has the most question marks. Gone from last year’s team is linebacker Tem Lukabu ’04, Colgate’s leading tackler the past two seasons and the two-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year. Three-fourths of last year’s lockdown secondary has also been lost due to graduation and injury. “Experience and depth are a concern on defense,” Biddle acknowledged. But the coach remains confident that senior leadership can close the gap between this year’s defense and that of last year. One of those senior leaders will be Tyson, a linebacker who had 54 tackles in 2003 and will surely rack up more with Lukabu out of the picture. “The great thing about football is that you always have people to step up and fill voids left by graduating seniors,” Tyson said. “It’s what college football is all about.”Also back on defense are senior defensive end Adam Leeman, who got to the quarterback for four sacks last year, and senior interception specialist Brian Anderson, the lone returning member of last year’s secondary.Anderson will be playing this season with a broken bone in his foot, displaying a toughness that has impressed his coach and inspired his teammates. Anderson, who played through the end of last season with a similar injury, is illustrative of the Raiders’ character on the whole. “We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of guys with both physical and mental toughness over the last eight years,” Biddle said. “This year is no different.” Running the table again will not be easy. The Raiders play one of the nation’s toughest schedules, including games against Massachusetts and Lehigh, ranked 19th and 23rd in the nation, respectively. Both teams will be hungry for revenge after losing to the Raiders in Hamilton in 2003. This year, Colgate plays both teams on their home fields. The Raiders will travel to Amherst, MA tomorrow to face UMass in its season opener. After last year’s opener, a last-minute miracle win against Georgetown, there is concern about taking on such a formidable opponent in the first game of the year.”We haven’t played well in openers since I’ve been here for whatever reason,” Biddle said. “UMass is a very good football team that will be motivated to play us. It should be a very tough challenge.”A victory over UMass would be a huge boost for the Raiders, who haven’t played since their 40-0 loss at the hands of Delaware in the National Championship game. If Colgate can get past the Minutemen, it may be on its way to another dream season. “Last year was an incredible one that certainly raised expectations around here,” Biddle said. “But all of that means nothing this year unless we’re ready to go.”