September 6, 2011
Dragons pull away in opener
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland tacklers Gabe Ostrow (6) and Vaughn Labor (97) bring down Buffalo State QB Ryan Lehotsky (10) during Saturday’s season opener. The Red Dragons were 28-12 winners.
Before scoring the game’s final 21 points to finally get this season-opening football exercise under control, things were hardly going smoothly for SUNY Cortland this past Saturday afternoon.
Some unexpected early sputtering on offense, courtesy of an aggressive Buffalo State game plan, created all sorts of headaches for Coach Dan MacNeill’s nationally-ranked crew before the Red Dragons emerged 28-12 winners in this New Jersey Athletic Conference season opener.
The Red Dragons defense did their part before 2,065 fans at a sweltering SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex, keeping the Bengals attack out of the end zone despite the 237-yard throwing success of junior quarterback Ryan Lehotsky. They also kept Buffalo State from converting any third or fourth down snaps in the game, the Bengals 0-for-13 on third down conversions and 0-for-3 on fourth down gambits.
That stinginess bought some time before the Cortland offense got going after falling behind 9-0. Veteran quarterback Dan Pitcher threw for three touchdowns — two scored by sophomore wide receiver John Babin — before junior tailback Justin Autera finished off the wilting visitors with a 10-yard touchdown run with 3:16 left in the contest.
Cortland survived despite being out-gained 296-250, despite being held to just 77 yards while Buffalo State was enjoying a 9-7 halftime advantage. The Red Dragons survived being staggered when Buffalo State’s 245-pound defensive end Kimani George rumbled 25 yards into the end zone after plucking a Pitcher fumble out of the air, the Red Dragons’ homegrown signal-caller having the ball jarred loose by blitzing linebacker Pasquale Vacchio trying to launch a second quarter pass.
So despite emerging victorious heading into a bye week before hosting Kean on Sept. 17 back at the Stadium Complex, it will not be hard for MacNeill and his Cortland coaching staff to get the attention of their players. “I think when we watch the tape, we’ll have plenty to work on,” he noted.
“The key now is, they say you have your most improvement from game one to game two,” added MacNeill. “The good news is we really have another week to embellish that improvement.”
BEING TESTED BY an improved Buffalo State squad — the Bengals finishing off a 4-6 season a year ago with three consecutive victories for Coach Jerry Boyes — could be good thing for a Cortland team that shared first place in the conference standings in 2010. The Red Dragons entered this season ranked 13th in the D3football.com national preseason poll.
Or as the post-game insight offered by QB Pitcher insisted: “It’s a great first game for us, a great first game. They gave us all we could handle and it was good for building character as a team. It gave us stuff to work on, for sure.”
Cortland could not have asked for a better start. Autera nearly duplicated his feat of a year ago when he returned the season’s opening kickoff for a touchdown, this time breaking free for a 66-yard jaunt before being pushed out of bounds at the Bengals’ 23-yard line.
But Cortland did not take advantage and eventually had to punt the ball away, and the Bengals first possession saw Lehotsky complete his first four throws on a drive that led to a 25-yard Nick Debbins field goal.
George’s TD fumble return (the PAT sailing wide right) made this a 9-0 game, though the first Cortland break came when the Bengals were flagged for excessive celebration following that score. That enabled Autera to return the ensuing short kickoff to the Buffalo State 45 — and four plays later Babin turned a wide-receiver screen pass into a 26-yard touchdown by weaving his way through would-be tacklers.
That was all the offense Cortland mustered in the first half, while Buffalo State was doing 222-yards worth of damage. And the Bengals then took the second half kickoff and reached the Cortland 4-yard line before having to settle for another Debbins field goal to boost the lead to 12-7.
“They came out hot. If they would have scored on that first drive, a touchdown, it would have been a different story,” said senior cornerback D.J. Romano of that crucial stand by the Cortland defense. “Luckily, we didn’t quit. We stayed with it.”
FROM THAT POINT on, Buffalo State was stymied by the Cortland defense.
The Bengals managed just one first down after that opening second half drive. Linebacker Chris Bright and defensive end Joe Andrews combined for one sack, blitzing linebacker Cody Allen also got to the quarterback and Bright recovered a fumble when Lehotsky was decked on a scramble.
“Coach put in a move for the front guys. It really didn’t affect us (the secondary). We still played our same thing,” said Romano of Cortland’s halftime adjustments on defense. “They were running some protections that were giving us problems, so coach put that in and you saw what happened. It worked to our benefit.”
From that point on, the Cortland offense decided to stay committed to running the football, too — no matter how many Bengals crowded the line of scrimmage.
“Obviously, their game plan was to pressure us,” said grad student Pitcher, the former Cortland High pass-flinger. “We want to establish the run every game. When the run look wasn’t great, we tried to check to get a big play over their heads. We just missed a couple, and let a few guys go (free), just stuff we can’t let happen.”
“There’s no question we were a little anemic on the offensive side of the ball,” said Coach MacNeill, not all that happy with the “low percentage” pass plays checked to when Buffalo State was loading up to stop Autera’s running.
“I’m not say it wasn’t the right thing to do to make those checks, but the fact is the checks weren’t working,” said MacNeill. “We’re not going to lose to a team that we can physically beat, even if there are a lot of people in the box. We were much more physical in the second half, and so that was the difference in the game. And our defense, hats off to them.”
AFTER FALLING BEHIND 12-7 at the start of the second half, the next two possession resulted in Red Dragon touchdown drives.
Cortland traveled 63 yards in nine plays — including key third down Pitcher-to-Babin and Pitcher-to-wideout Mike Humphrey completions — before the lead came when Pitcher tossed 24-yard touchdown pass over the middle to tight end Mike Haber.
After a third down sack forced a Buffalo State punt, Cortland covered 59 yards in six snaps — including a key Pitcher-to-Babin third down hook-up — capped by Babin catching a 12-yard slant pass for his second touchdown.
The Cortland defense dominated the final quarter, Autera adding on his determined touchdown run up the middle. That was the last of his 20 carries that covered 82 yards.
“I think I kind of settled down a little bit as we started to move,” said Pitcher, Cortland also speeding things up by going no-huddle at times. “I was a little rattled in the first half, just getting my feet settled and worried about being popped. I had to take a step back and settle down a little bit, and I think I played better in the second half.”
So did the rest of the Red Dragons.
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