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Undefeated Colgate climbing FCS ranks, fueled by stingy defense

Colgate defensive lineman Nick Wheeler (92) has six sacks this season. Colgate Athletics photo1 / 3
Colgate head coach Dan Hunt has his team off to a 7-0 start this season. Colgate Athletics photo2 / 3
Colgate defensive lineman Nick Wheeler, right, and the Raiders have been stingy on defense this season. Colgate Athletics photo3 / 3

HAMILTON, N.Y. -- Colgate head football coach Dan Hunt couldn’t have envisioned these numbers.

The Raiders haven’t allowed a touchdown in two months, holding their past six opponents to a combined six points. That’s a stingy 1.0 points per game during that six-game stretch for a team has shut out four of its past five opponents.

Hunt expected his team to be good on defense, but not that statistically dominant.

“I wouldn’t have expected that,” Hunt said. “Nobody would.”

No. 11-ranked Colgate is on a 12-game winning streak dating to last season. The Raiders (7-0, 4-0 Patriot) can clinch the Patriot League championship with a road win against Fordham (1-7, 1-2) on Saturday in the Bronx, N.Y. They would also earn the league's automatic-qualifier for the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs with a win against Fordham or the following week against Lehigh.

“Every team’s goal is to win the conference,” said Colgate defensive lineman Nick Wheeler, who has a team-high six sacks. “That is goal No. 1.”

Colgate has the second-longest active winning streak in FCS behind No. 1-ranked North Dakota State, which has 14 consecutive wins.

The Raiders are on the cusp of returning to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2015. Colgate advanced to the national quarterfinals that season, including a 44-38 victory against James Madison in the second round of the playoffs.

The Raiders are the last team not named NDSU to defeat James Madison in the postseason. Colgate advanced to the national championship game in 2003, losing to Delaware. The Raiders have appeared in the FCS (I-AA) playoffs 10 times with a 6-10 record.

Hunt is in his fifth season as head coach at Colgate. He was an assistant in the program for 19 seasons (1995-2013) prior to that. While Colgate started the 2015 season with three losses, Hunt sees some similarities with that team and this year’s Raiders.

“Both (teams) got better as the year went on,” Hunt said.

The Raiders run a 3-4 base defense that Wheeler helps anchor. Their four shutouts this season are a Patriot League record with two conference games remaining. The last time Colgate had four shutouts in a season was 1966.

“There are 11 hats flying to the ball,” said Wheeler, a junior from St. Louis, Mo. “We swarm a lot. That’s what we preach.”

The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Wheeler has 20.5 career sacks, ranking fifth in program history. Senior defensive back Tyler Castillo leads the team with four interceptions and has 11 in his career. Colgate leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing 3.3 points per game.

“One thing we preach is doing your 1/11th,” Wheeler said. “If we do our job, we know that we can do something special.”

The Raiders haven’t allowed a touchdown since a 24-17 victory against Holy Cross on Sept. 1 in the season opener. Wheeler had three sacks in a 10-3 victory against then-No. 20-ranked New Hampshire, from the Colonial Athletic Conference, on Sept. 8.

“People know about him,” Hunt said. “People worry about him and he can still take over games.”

The Patriot League doesn't allow redshirt seasons (except in the case of medical hardship waivers) and has a 60-scholarship limit. The FCS limit is 63 scholarships. Teams also have to cap their rosters at 90 players.

Hunt said not being able to redshirt players shows up the most on the offensive and defensive lines. And that difference is more pronounced the deeper you get into the FCS playoffs.

“I think you can really see it with your linemen,” Hunt said. “That’s where you can notice it standing on the field. … As you play the CAA teams and the North Dakota States of the world, you see the difference that it makes.”

The Raiders won their final five games last season and shared the Patriot League title, but didn’t qualify for the playoffs. Lehigh earned the automatic bid from the conference last season.

The way last season ended has motivated the Raiders this fall.

“I do think that there was a sense of both confidence and drive because we didn’t get to the playoffs last year,” Hunt said. “We felt we had a playoff team.”

Senior running back James Holland Jr. has rushed for 595 yards and six touchdowns on 117 attempts to lead Colgate. Holland has 2,556 career rushing yards.

The Raiders have three road games remaining in their regular season against Fordham, Lehigh and Army West Point, which is an FBS opponent. Hunt said having to play an FBS team in the final game of the regular season in a “strange scheduling piece,” particularly if Colgate qualifies for the playoffs.

“We have a team goal to have practice in December,” Hunt said. “At that point, you see what happens.”

Eric Peterson
Peterson covers college athletics for The Forum, including Concordia College and Minnesota State Moorhead. He also covers the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks independent baseball team and helps out with North Dakota State football coverage. Peterson has been working at the newspaper since 1996.

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