October 19, 2009


New plan works for Red Dragons


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland’s Anthony Giuliano breaks tackles against Western Connecticut’s Greg Galasso (47) and Colin Dillon (5) in the third quarter of Saturday’s NJAC game. Red Dragons rolled to 35-6 victory.

Sports Editor

If this is what the SUNY Cortland offense has become, that’s just fine with Dom Sair.
The sturdy junior running back certainly savored the 20-carry workload given to him Saturday afternoon, responding with a career-best 163 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Red Dragons handled win-less Western Connecticut State with relative 35-6 ease.
“We had a different game plan this week, one where I could use my size and power,” said Sair, the 6-foot, 235-pound bruiser who came into this New Jersey Athletic Conference football contest with only 39 carries for 139 yards in Cortland’s previous five games.
With the Red Dragons depleted by quarterback injuries, 36 of their 44 offensive snaps were running plays. With a more conservative Cortland approach, special teams and a swarming defense were asked to make an impact on this home game at the Stadium Complex — which is just what happened for the 4-2 Red Dragons.
The special teams were special indeed, thanks to freshman Justin Autera out of Mahopac High School. He returned the second half kickoff 79 yards for a touchdown and then had clear sailing on a 59-yard touchdown punt return on the third play of the fourth quarter to help the Red Dragons break this game open.
No one had returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same game at Cortland since 1933.
The defense took care of the rest.
Western Connecticut (0-6) opened the game with a 68-yard touchdown drive when starting quarterback Mike Williams completed four of his first five tosses, including finding wideout Steve Griffin crossing along the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass play. The Colonials also reached the Cortland 21-yard line with a late fourth quarter march against the second team defense.
In between those two productive drives, Western Connecticut managed only 19 yards of offense.
Colonial quarterbacks Williams and Chris Sloat were sacked six times, Red Dragon senior defensive end Bryan Wiley with a pair of sacks among his team-high nine tackles. Sophomore cornerback D.J. Romano also picked off a pass, his team-high fourth theft of the season, though his weaving 90-yard fourth quarter touchdown return was negated by Red Dragon penalties.
The visitors from Danbury managed just nine rushing yards on the day, finishing with 117 yards of total offense.
“THE KIDS UNDERSTOOD what we had to do and I think we executed it,” said Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill, as the Red Dragons rebounded from the previous weekend’s disappointing 16-7 loss at Montclair State.
“That was the theme, to be experts in football and knowing what your situation is,” added MacNeill. “Once you know your situation and you play to it, there’s a way to win every game and by-god they went out and won this game in fine fashion.”
The situation going into this game was graduate student Alex Smith was making his first start at quarterback since the 2007 season, not bad for someone who began the year as a Cortland assistant coach in charge of wide receivers and kick returners.
The Red Dragons already lost two starting QBs — junior Dan Pitcher (torn Achilles tendon) in week two and classmate Hudson Woodward (shoulder separation) last weekend. Smith himself was coming off a shoulder injury last week at Montclair State, when he made his first appearance since being granted an extra-year of eligibility by the NCAA.
No wonder cautious Cortland only tried two passing plays in the first quarter, Smith sacked on the first attempt and picked off on the second.
But just before halftime former three-year starter Smith showed some old magic with Cortland protecting a 7-6 lead, getting possession with 1:51 left after Autera’s fair catch of a short punt on the Western Connecticut 40-yard line.
After a running play picked up a yard, Smith threw down the middle and hooked up with tight end Eddie Spillett on a 26-yard completion. On the next play he found wideout Anthony Giuliano in the left corner of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown.
“It felt good. It was a lot of fun,” said Smith of his performance, though he exited in the second half after feeling pain in his braced knee. “We were killing ourselves out there with penalties, but it felt good and it was fun.
“We’ve been working on timing all week,” he added. “I’ve been resting my shoulder. I threw a little bit Thursday and Friday I started throwing a little bit more. Today I upped the ante a little bit. I felt fine out there. I could throw anything, was throwing posts before the game, but we had the running game on them.”
THAT IS WHERE Sair and this young offensive line, that includes sophomore Cortland High grad Matt Pitcher at right tackle, excelled. The versatile Giuliano got quite a workout in direct-snap “wildcat” packages, too — slithering his way to 38 yards on 11 carries.
Down 6-0 after Western Connecticut botched the extra point following Williams’ TD pass, and after Autera previewed what was to come with a 36-yard kickoff return, Sair busted free on a 48-yard run run to the Western Connecticut 3-yard line on the very first Cortland play.
“We saw in the films the hole would be there,” said Sair. “The nerves were there, but once I broke it everything went away.”
Cortland could not cash in however, a false start on first down and a third down sack leading to a missed field goal.
But an errant punt snap set up Cortland on the 11-yard line moments, leading to two Sair runs for the go-ahead TD. Sair’s 6-yard end zone run followed fullback Bill Smith off right tackle, with Marc Corrado adding the first of five successful PAT kicks.
Giuliano’s TD grab gave Cortland a 14-6 lead at halftime, Autera came up with his second half returns to hike the advantage to 28-6 and Sair capped his big day with a 5-yard TD run with 6:05 left to play. That was his fifth carry on the 55-yard TD drive, all done on the ground.
“The defense played great. That’s our strength and it’s a good thing we can accentuate that strength isn’t it,” said Coach MacNeill, senior defensive end Evan Wylie with three sacks and inside linebacker Cody Allen in on eight tackles.
“They really shut them down just totally after that first drive,” said MacNeill. “Obviously, we can’t give up anything because of our inability to put points on the board. We don’t want to get complacent, but man the defense was doing a pretty good job out there. And then field position, we owned.”
Dragon Tales: Senior wide receiver Eric Hajnos was questionable to start, but went the distance and made a nice sideline catch of a second quarter Smith pass for his 100th reception as a Red Dragon. He is the 14th Red Dragon to reach the century mark in receptions... Though QB Smith finished just 3-for-7 for just 51 yards, his role will be expanded as time goes on starting with this Saturday’s trip to play William Paterson in New Jersey. “Having him out there we’re certainly more complete,” said Coach MacNeill, though freshman Rob Van Bargen has gotten snaps in the last two games for Cortland. “It’s a big difference when you put Alex in there, but thank god we’ve got another kid we can go to. He’s gaining a lot of experience, isn’t he?”.... With students gone on a long-weekend break, attendance was only 580 at the Stadium Complex after having drawn big crowds in three previous home contests.... Autera did fumble away a fourth quarter punt, but that was the only damper to his day. “He’s pretty good. He’s pretty electric,” said Coach MacNeill of his freshman. The only other Red Dragon to double up on returns was Bill Bergstrom in 1933, who returned the opening kickoff for a TD and then legged a punt 95-yard to pay dirt in a 54-0 Cortland win over Trenton State.... Autera was named the NJAC Special Teams Player of the Week.... With the win, Cortland avoided suffering back-to-back losses for the first time in five seasons.... Senior Kyle Peterson only punted twice, but pinned West Conn back on their 6- and 12-yard lines with those two boots to help Cortland win the battle of field position.