By Matt Dougherty, Patriot League Associate Executive Director for Communications
When Robert McCabe leads Georgetown into a crucial Patriot League matchup with No. 10 Lehigh on Saturday, the senior linebacker, captain and Buck Buchanan Award candidate will be looking across the field at a team the Hoyas have never beaten in League play. And a school he almost attended.
"Originally throughout high school I was going to play baseball in college, so that was my focus for the the first three years of high school," McCabe said. "In my senior football season I started getting recruited by different Patriot League and Ivy League schools and it came down to Lehigh and Georgetown."
So why did the native of Newtown Square, Pa, a Philadelphia suburb, decide to take his talents south to Washington instead of north to Bethlehem?
"Georgetown is a great academic institution so that was a real incentive for me and what I was looking for in a school," McCabe said. "I love the city of Washington and the campus is great. When I came on a visit I enjoyed the players here and I felt the coaches had a good idea of where they saw the program going and I wanted to be a part of that."
McCabe believed the Hoyas would be successful despite evidence to the contrary at the time. Georgetown was 2-8 overall and 0-5 in the Patriot League in the season before McCabe's arrival, then bottomed out at 0-11 in McCabe's freshman season in 2009.
It was a learning and growing experience, but one that shaped McCabe and the rest of a strong senior class for the Hoyas.
"It was an extremely tough year. We lost about half of our freshmen class after that year that either quite or left the school," McCabe said. "For the seniors now that stayed we became brothers. We bonded, we grew up together and we were going to make sure that a season like that was not going to happen again."
He added, "We all came from good high school programs so we weren't used to losing. We didn't know how to deal with it and we didn't want to deal with it."
In the past two seasons, McCabe and his fellow seniors lived up to that promise. The Hoyas were 4-7 overall and 2-3 in the Patriot League in 2010, with four of the seven losses coming by six points or less. Last year Georgetown had it best marks since joining the Patriot League by going 8-3 overall and 3-2 in League action. In those two seasons, the Hoyas recorded a pair of wins over Lafayette and Holy Cross and a victory over Colgate, beating both the Crusaders and Raiders for the first time in League play.
"A big win in sophomore year was over Holy Cross at our Homecoming," McCabe said. "We had never beaten them in the Patriot League, so having them come to our field and beating them on our Homecoming really was a boost to our confidence. Last year we were extremely confident coming into the season because we knew the type of team we had. Everybody outside of our locker room did not expect the year that we had, but inside our locker room we were confident that whole year. We expected to win those games. A signature win would be over Colgate, a team we had not beaten in our history and we put up a great performance to shut down their run game and shut down Nate Eachus."
Last year's success put Georgetown into a matchup for the Patriot League title in its regular-season finale on Nov. 12 at Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks prevailed 34-12, winning their second straight League crown and advancing to the postseason while the Hoyas were simply left with more motivation to make the final step in 2012.
"To get to that Patriot League championship game was a great experience," McCabe said. "We wanted to win that game and we were disappointed that we lost but Lehigh is a great program and they had a great team last year. I said in the locker room and throughout the offseason to remember how you felt walking off the field and how hurt you are and use that motivation coming into the offseason and this year. It really motivated us to get that one step over the hump and win the Patriot League championship."
To do so, the Hoyas will have to start by going through the Mountain Hawks again. While Georgetown recorded its first-ever League wins over Holy Cross and Colgate in the last two seasons, it has never beaten Lehigh in 11 Patriot League games. The Mountain Hawks have won by 17 points or more each time.
"We have a lot of respect for the Lehigh football program, their team and their coaches. They are a great program, but with that said we are extremely confident," McCabe said. "This game has been circled on our calendars all year. We play five straight Patriot League games and this is where our season basically is on the line. We are really excited and confident and looking forward to the game."
While McCabe continues to focus on team goals, people in the Patriot League and now around the nation are also paying attention to his individual accomplishments. McCabe leads the Football Championship Subdivision in both tackles (83) and tackles for loss (10.5), and last week was named a candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the FCS. With 331 career tackles, he is just 18 away from the Georgetown record held by former teammate Nick Parrish (2007-10) and 39 from becoming the first player this century to crack the Patriot League career top 10. McCabe was named the Patriot League Preseason Defensive Player of the Year after recording a school-record 134 tackles last season and earning first-team All-Patriot League honors. He has already been named the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week twice this season.
All of the accolades are important to McCabe, but as a captain and leader he continues to put the team first.
"It's cool to get all of these awards and recognition," he said. "It's a huge honor to be up for the Buck Buchanan Award. It's a testament to my hard work through these four years to stick through the tough times and to be at where we are right now as a team with our goals all in sight, it means a lot. I couldn't have done any of this without all my teammates. It's cool to be nominated for these awards and have all of this recognition, but none of it is possible without my teammates and everyone on the defensive side of the ball."
For McCabe, who has 10 more tackles than any other player in the FCS this season, the individual success comes because everyone on the team is contributing.
"We have a lot of talented players on this defense, and each player has their job," he said. "Some games my job might be to make 15 tackles, but the whole defense has really done our job and filled our roles. Especially on our defensive line, maybe they don't get the recognition they deserve but they've done a great job taking on blockers. Within our defense guys like Jordan Richardson, Sean Campbell, Alec May and Richard Shankle make it easier for me to run around and make plays."
McCabe hopes to have a chance to run around and make plays at the next level, but if not a Georgetown education should have him well-prepared for a career in the financial sector. He interned at PNC Bank in Baltimore over the summer.
"Playing professionally has always been a dream of mine, so if an opportunity presents itself I'm definitely going to consider that," he said. "Other than that I'm a Finance major so I'd be looking to get into financial services up on Wall Street."
But first, there are five more Patriot League games to play and one last chance at a League title. If it comes, McCabe might even find himself accepting the top defensive honor in the nation at the 26th Annual FCS Awards Show in nearby Philadelphia on Dec. 17.
Watch McCabe in a preseason interview at Patriot League Football Media Day below!