DeShawn Sarley knows big games. The new starting running back for the Wittenberg Tigers graduated from Colerain High School, which has made 14 state playoff appearances in the last 15 seasons.
“You get used to playing in big atmospheres,” Sarley said. “You know to always be ready.”
Sarley earned a starting job as a senior at Colerain in 2014. He got the gig as a sophomore at Wittenberg, and in his first two games, he has rushed 39 times for 193 yards and scored two touchdowns. He averages 4.9 yards per carry.
The biggest test for Sarley and the No. 20 Tigers (2-0, 1-0) comes at 1 p.m. Saturday when they play No. 10 Wabash (2-0, 1-0) at Edwards-Maurer Field.
“It’s definitely probably the biggest game of my career,” Sarley said. “Playing at Colerain, you get used to it. Now I’ve got to stay focused and do what I need to do and not worry about how big the game is. Just worry about playing my game.”
Wittenberg has not run the ball well against Wabash in the last two seasons. The Tigers beat the Little Giants 21-15 in Springfield in 2014 despite gaining 59 yards on 36 carries, an average of 1.6 yards per carry. Last season, in a 42-14 loss in Crawfordsville, Ind., the Tigers gained 26 yards on 33 carries, an average of 0.8 yards per carry.
This season, with victories over Albion and Allegheny, Wabash ranks 12th in the nation in rushing defense (56.5 yards per game). Wittenberg counters with an offense gaining 236 yards per game on the ground.
“So far I’m feeling pretty good,” Sarley said. “Our running game is going pretty good. The offensive line is opening up some nice holes. That’s always a plus.”
Sean Gary and Jimmy Dehnke shared the rushing load the last three seasons. Freshman Nick Kendall has emerged as Wittenberg’s second running back this season. He gained 31 yards on seven carries in the opener, a 34-0 victory over Capital and gained 67 yards on 11 carries Saturday in a 33-7 victory at Ohio Wesleyan.
Sarley knew, with the graduation of Gary and Dehnke, this would the year he would have a chance to start.
“Last year I also traveled and practiced and worked with the varsity,” Sarley said. “It was always good watching Jimmy and Sean, two older guys. I learned how to read the holes and set my blocks, things like that.”
Penalty problem: Wittenberg leads the NCAC with 101 penalty yards per game. Coach Joe Fincham said the coaches stressed the issue in practice all week.
“If I had the secret, we wouldn’t have had penalties in the first game, much less the second,” Fincham said. “It’s been disappointing. It’s awfully hard to beat good football teams when you’re taking good plays off the board. When you can be 2nd-and-4 and instead your 1st-and-15, it hurts you from a field-position standpoint. It just piles up on you. It’s unfortunate it’s happened in the first two games. We are working hard to fix it.”