Two years ago, sophomore running back Withler Marcelin wasn't the featured running back for Rowan University.

In fact, Marcelin wasn't even on offense coming into his freshman year.

Last season, the Ocean Township High School graduate played safety for Rowan, but tried out for the punt return team, displaying good footwork. It wasn't until halfway through last season following injuries at the running back position that the coaches tried him on offense.

"They asked me if I want to make the switch, and I was like, 'If that's what the team needs I'm with it,' " said the 5-foot-10, 195 pounder. "I played safety my whole life, but I wanted to try something new and see how I would excel at it."

Now Marcelin has 1,460 yards on the season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He rushed for 223 yards on 43 carries in Saturday's 24-0 win over Endicott in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. With that performance, Marcelin broke three single-season rushing records at the school - all-purpose yards (1,643), rushing yards (1,397) and rushing attempts (273).

The team rushed for 346 yards on 67 carries, the most yards and carries in a game all season.

Running the ball is going to be important for the Profs (9-2), who are riding a six-game winning streak heading into a second-round matchup in Belton, Texas, on Saturday against Mary Hardin-Baylor (11-0).

The Crusaders are the No. 2 team in the country in the latest American Football Coaches Association Division III poll. Rowan is No. 24.

The Profs used a dominant ground game to close out Endicott in the final quarter. They rattled off a 15-play drive that lasted nine minutes, 53 seconds.

All 15 were running plays to Marcelin and freshman Khalil Pierce.

Not only will running the ball with a strong offensive line allow the Profs to possess the ball longer, it will keep Rowan's stout defense fresh, much like it did last Saturday.

"I think when you get this far all the teams are pretty good," coach Jay Accorsi said on Tuesday. "I think it goes back to a philosophy - I always personally believed - in being able to run the football."

"I just think when you're able to run the ball, and you're able to run it certainly at will, you know when the other team knows you're going to run it. I think it gives you a little bit of swagger, and I think it gives you a little bit of confidence and it takes something out of the other team."

Marcelin credited his offensive line after Saturday's game - and again in a phone interview on Tuesday - with getting him prepared for this season.

"(Marcelin) came up to me and a couple of the other linemen and told us the goals he had," said junior right guard Joe Borden, an Egg Harbor Township High School graduate who was named to the New Jersey Athletic Conference Honorable Mention team.

"We obviously shared the same goals. Even though the running back is going to get the limelight for breaking records and doing all of that, he gives us credit all the time. I don't ever not hear him give us credit."

Accorsi said after the game on Saturday that the Crusaders are going to be the toughest team Rowan will face all year.

The Crusaders use a 4-2 defense (four down linemen, two linebackers), and feature senior defensive tackle Silvio Diaz. The teams have two common opponents this season. Mary Hardin-Baylor defeated Kean 34-7 and Wesley 35-7. Rowan beat Kean 7-6 and Wesley 24-17.

"Not many people have had success against them, and again with the unknown you just don't know," Accorsi said. "You see what you see on film, but until you see them in person.

"(Diaz) is exceptionally strong. He's one of the better defensive tackles I've seen in a long time and he kind of stirs the pot defensively for them. Anytime you can create havoc from the inside spot you're going to be successful."

The Profs' main focus will not only be to neutralize Diaz's ability to disrupt plays, but to continue to play its game effectively. Because when Marcelin, Pierce or senior Matt Dortch are confident in the line's ability, they are a hard group of running backs to stop.

"We've faced teams like (UMHB) - playoff teams - all year, basically," Borden said. "We've been basically playing for our playoff lives every week.

"It's not really who we play, it's how we play personally. If we do our assignments and everybody's crisp and clean we can play with anybody."

Contact John Russo:

609-272-7210