Occidental College, home of the dominant football team of the decade in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, is looking to close out the 1980s in style.
The Tigers, winners of two consecutive conference championships and six titles in the past seven years, are prowling for a larger reward this season--a trip to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division III playoffs.
With five offensive starters, including quarterback Tony Werbelow, and nine defensive starters back from a team that finished 8-1 last season, the Tigers appear primed to make a run at their first playoff berth since 1985.
"I think we have more depth than we've ever had," said Occidental Coach Dale Widolff, who has guided the Tigers for seven seasons.
Linebackers David Hodges and Pete Tucker and defensive end Brady Dargan--all of whom were all-conference selections last season--anchor a defense that recorded two shutouts in 1988, surrendered a conference-low 252.2 yards a game and allowed an average of 11.3 points.
Werbelow, a senior, was fourth in Division III in passing efficiency, completing 103 of 149 attempts for 1,135 yards and eight touchdowns while throwing just two interceptions.
"Tony has a real strong arm and those other things you want," Widolff said. "He's a very strong leader and makes good decisions. That's the key thing for me--not forcing the ball, checking your team out of a bad play based on defensive front and coverage, things like that."
Occidental's receiving corps returns virtually intact: wide receiver Rick Freeman, who had a team-high 30 receptions, wideout Rob Leinbach and tight end David Grossklaus.
The Tigers, however, will not be pass-crazy.
"We developed a philosophy here that we think is pretty sound," Widolff said. "Last year, we threw as little as five passes a game and as many as 35. Our priority is we want to run the football."
Kevin Vegas, who rushed for 455 yards and seven touchdowns last season, will be the Tigers' main threat and will operate behind an offensive line led by guard Roger Laubengayer, who was selected to the Sporting News' preseason Division III All-American team.
Occidental opens its season at home Saturday night against Menlo College. The race for the SCIAC title begins Sept. 23 against Pomona-Pitzer.
"The team that I think needs to be watched quite a bit is Redlands," Widolff said. "Rumor has it that they had a huge recruiting class."
Redlands finished 6-3 last season in Mike Maynard's first year as coach. Claremont might also provide a challenge.