For Canisius College, the 1996 season begins today when St. John's comes to the Demske Sports Complex for an important Metro Atlantic Athletic contest (3 p.m., Radio 710).
The Golden Griffins (5-0, 4-0 in the MAAC) are off to their best start in eight years, but today's game marks the start of a four-week stretch that will determine just how good they are.
"We're looking at these next four games almost like it's the playoffs," said Canisius coach Chuck Williams, whose team shares first place in the MAAC with defending champion Duquesne. "Every game we play the rest of the year means a lot."
Also today, Buffalo State (4-1) tries to get back in the win column against Kean College (2-3) in Union, N.J. (1:30 p.m., 91.3 FM). The University at Buffalo (5-3) has the week off.
A 21-0 whitewash of winless Fairfield last Saturday was the last of a string of easy games for Canisius. The overall record of the Griffs' five victims is 3-27. The next four opponents are 17-5.
And since Duquesne (6-0, 4-0) has a relatively light slate ahead, Canisius can't afford a conference loss before hosting the Dukes in three weeks.
St. John's (3-2, 2-2) is not the strongest of the remaining opponents, but the Red Storm is capable of pulling the upset. The Red Storm have several players back from a team that dismantled the Griffs, 30-12, last year.
"St. John's is the best team we've faced this year. That alone is enough to get us up for this game," said defensive end Scott Dochat, who is second on the team with four sacks. "But there's a little revenge in this for us, too. They kind of embarrassed us down there, so we want prove a point to St. John's and the rest of the league that we are for real."
Job one for Canisius will be stopping tailback Jermaine Creighton, who burned the Griffs for 145 yards a year ago. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound junior has 586 yards this season, including a season-high 150 last week in a 28-20 loss at Marist. Quarterback Mark Levine has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 962 yards and nine touchdowns. Big-play wide receiver Kendrick Forte averages 17.8 yards on 25 catches and has seven touchdowns.
However, St. John's faces the top-rated defense in Division I-AA. Canisius ranks first in scoring defense (2.8 per game), pass efficiency (31.2 percent of passes completed by opponents) and turnover margin (plus-3.2) and second in yards allowed (183.4).
The Griffs also have 18 interceptions. Cornerback Shane Hurd leads the nation with seven pickoffs and 198 return yards. The MAAC defensive player of the week has returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including a school-record 90-yarder last week.
"With the tremendous pressure the front four gets and with the secondary always in perfect position, if they are going to throw the ball eventually they are going to throw it to us," Williams said.
Offensively, Canisius needs more diversity. The Griffs average a paltry 54.8 yards passing per game. Without the threat of the long ball, expect the St. John's defense to focus its attention on running backs Nick Adinolfi (West Seneca West) and Hayward Rodgers (South Park).
Buffalo State hopes to get wide receiver Shino Ellis (LaSalle) back this week. The senior has missed three games with a knee injury. Ellis was off to a great start with 18 catches for 261 yards after the first two games.
Having a full compliment of receivers will give quarterback Tracy Bacon (1,161 yards, nine touchdowns) another big-play option in the passing game.
"We spread the ball around, but every quarterback has that one guy he looks to in key situations, and Shino has been that guy for Tracy," Bengals coach Jerry Boyes said. "The biggest thing for Shino is he has to get hit, get back up and forget about it. If he does that, he'll be fine."
Kean is coming off a 3-2 loss to Jersey City State. The game, played in a torrential downpour, featured an NCAA record 24 fumbles -- 13 by JC State. Kean recovered five fumbles, blocked four punts and held JC State to 61 total yards but the offense never got on track.
"Kean has tremendous potential," Boyes said. "If all that potential comes together on one particular afternoon, they can be a tough football team."
The Cougars' top offensive threat is tailback Trenell Smith, who averages 115 yards per game. He was getting more than 185 per contest last year before Buffalo State held him to 68 in a 31-7 Bengals victory.