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October 13, 2008

 

Dragons stand alone in 1st

Late TD trips Montclair 23-17 in grid showdown

Football

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland wide receiver Eric Hajnos (87) brings down a 37-yard touchdown pass at the start of the second quarter while being defended by Montclair State’s Saladeen McGady (21) Saturday at the Stadium Complex. Cortland won a showdown of unbeatens, 23-17.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

How did they do it this time?
How did this battle-tested SUNY Cortland football team overcome potential fourth quarter disaster to remain undefeated and claim first place in the New Jersey Athletic Conference standings all by themselves?
Even a throng of some 5,000 fans taking in this showdown of nationally ranked unbeaten teams on an ideal blue-skied Saturday afternoon had to be shaking their collective heads. They watched the Red Dragons refuse to be rattled by adversity while pulling out a 23-17 victory over visiting Montclair State.
“We just wanted to put on a show,” suggested senior middle linebacker Jim Smith with a grin after the Red Dragons kept things interesting and entertaining while improving to 5-0 this season. All five wins have been conference contests.
Senior tailback Andrew Giuliano broke free for an eight-yard touchdown run — his most productive pick-up of the day against a rugged Montclair defensive front — with 1:38 left to play to break a 17-17 tie. But that was only part of the story.
These Red Dragons survived by continuing to display the knack of coming up with big second half plays when it matters most, which was also the case in key road victories at Rowan and Kean earlier this season.
These Red Dragons survived because they had other offensive options when a Red Hawks defense ranked No. 1 in the conference refused to give Giuliano any running room. Senior quarterback Ray Miles stepped up to complete 19-of-30 passes for 302 yards and a pair of touchdowns tosses to senior wideouts Eric Hajnos and Zacc Guaragno. Both receivers latched onto six passes on the day, Hajnos for 119 yards and Guaragno 112 yards.
“It was frustrating, but there have been games when I haven’t been able to throw the ball, either, so I know how Andrew feels,” said Miles after Guiliano — who came into the game averaging 162 yards per game — was held to just 40 yards on 23 carries.
These Red Dragons survived because of a determined defense effort highlighted by a critical fourth quarter stand the led to 6-foot-4 senior defensive end Ben Nagle blocking a potential go-ahead field goal. They also had five quarterback sacks to spoil Montclair sophomore quarterback Ryan Boysen’s first start of the season. They also held an opponent to just 67 rushing yards for the second straight weekend.
Still, this game was not over until Smith and fellow linebacker Josh Jablonski hurried Boysen into an incompletion on a 4th-and-10 snap from the Cortland 26-yard-line in the final seconds.
“We wanted to be out there at the end. We wanted to be out there with a chance to win the ball game,” said team captain Smith after his defense shut the door to send the Red Hawks back to New Jersey with a 3-1 NJAC and 4-1 overall record.
THIS GAME WAS a 10-10 standoff at halftime before Cortland marched 72 yards to open the second half for a go-ahead touchdown. Two pass interference calls against the Red Hawks, including a crucial flag thrown on fourth down, helped set-up the 13-yard TD pass Lansing High product Guaragno latched onto in the back of the end zone.
Cortland seemed to be in control after that, but Jeffrey Lang’s bid for a 45-yard field goal on the final play of the third quarter would miss to the right and a Cortland drive early in the fourth quarter would be stopped on the Montclair 46.
No problem, right? Just punt the ball and pin the Red Hawks back and let the Red Dragon defense take over. But Montclair freshman Yessy Tejada returned that punt 80 yards to suddenly turn this game around.
“Special teams failed us a little bit,” said Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill. “It wasn’t a good punt and it wasn’t great coverage and they blocked it pretty well and made a big play.”
Though Red Dragon Eddie Spillett came up with a TD-saving tackle on the Tejada return at the 7-yard-line, on the next snap running back Jeff Bliss ran in for his second touchdown to tie the game at 17-17.
More Cortland trouble followed. Two plays into the next drive, with Giuliano carrying tacklers for extra yards while converting a 2nd-and-1 off tackle run, the football was jarred free by Montclair linebacker Brian Tweer at the Cortland 34. Tweer returned that loose ball inside the 10 and the Red Hawks were in position to suddenly take the lead.
That is when the Cortland defense stood up.
“We’re just resilient. We had to be resilient,” said senior safety Mark Berman of that huge series of downs. “The d-line just did a great job of getting to the quarterback, so you have to give those guys the credit.”
After Bliss ran to the 4-yard line, Jablonski and Nagle teamed up for a huge sack of Boysen. On third down from the 13, it was linebacker Bran Haas and defensive end Bryan Wiley’s turn to get to the quarterback.
And while lining up to kick a 35-yard field goal, the Red Hawks were whistled for having too many players in the huddle and were pushed back five more yards. That made Marco Capozzoli’s field goal that much tougher, and Nagle reached up to get his mitts on the low boot to keep this game tied.
OF COURSE, CORTLAND still had to score and seemed on the verge of doing just that after the Nagle blocked kick.
After three first downs got the Red Dragons to the Montclair 37, Guaragno made a great catch of a ball Miles fluttered up to the 5-yard-line — only to have the pigskin stripped from his possession by defensive back Mario McLean.
“I told him after the play we were going to get it again, that we’re going to get it back,” were Miles’ words of encouragement to Guaragno with 5:03 left to play. “So I was happy to get that second chance.”
Stopping Boysen a foot shy of a first down on a third down scramble to the Montclair 17 gave Miles and the offense that second chance, the visitors punting the ball away to the Cortland 42.
Miles hit wide receiver Mike Lane for an 11-yard pick-up on 3rd-and-7 and two plays later located Hajnos all alone crossing over the middle for a 30-yard pass play that got the Red Dragons to the Montclair 8-yard-line.
Giuliano scored on the next play virtually untouched and Cortland was ahead for keeps. But a blocked extra point gave Montclair hopes of a winning comeback.
The Red Hawks almost did just that, even overcoming a third down sack when a blitzing Berman and defensive tackle Richard Rolo sacked Boysen on a third down pass play. Facing 4th-and-19 from his own 38, Boysen hooked up with Omar Sevilla for a 24-yard pass play to keep the drive going.
Another completion to Tejada put the ball on the 26 — where four consecutive incomplete passes ended the Red Hawks comeback bid.
“WE HAVE NOT had to throw the ball much this year,” said Miles, who was just two yards shy of his career high and started his big day with a perfectly thrown 47-yard TD toss down the middle to Hajnos in the second quarter that gave Cortland an early 10-7 lead.
“And it’s only been to a couple of receivers in the past, but I’d say at least five different players who caught passes today,” Miles added after completing throws to seven different Dragons. “Opening up the offense is going to scare some of the teams we have coming up.”
Up next will be Western Connecticut State, a noon start this Saturday in Danbury, where the Red Dragons may have the chance to come up with some more second half magic.
“We’ve definitely been a second half team, so we’re used to it,” said Berman. “I’m not saying don’t come out and play well in the first half, we just have that mentality to finish them off in the second half.”