November 1, 2010
Red Dragons take over top spot
Hand Montclair State its first loss on late TD toss
Before taking the field for one final possession late in the fourth quarter Saturday afternoon, SUNY Cortland quarterback Dan Pitcher had one concern he passed on to his teammates.
“I told the guys right before we went out to just make sure we don’t get a celebration penalty when we score a touchdown,” recalled Pitcher.
Moments later prophet Pitcher connected with wide open wide receiver Mike Humphrey in the corner of the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown pass with 1:03 left to play which — after Marc Corrado converted the extra-point kick — enabled the Red Dragons to pull out a memorable 10-9 football victory over previously unbeaten Montclair State.
There would be no flags for a celebration following that TD toss in this showdown of top New Jersey Athletic Conference contenders. There would be some anxious moments remaining for a well-chilled crowd of some 1,500 spectators witnessing an epic defensive struggle that featured a staggering 23 punts, as both nationally-ranked defenses refused to budge for the most part.
Defending conference champion Montclair took the ensuing kickoff and —with junior quarterback Tom Fischer completing four consecutive passes — quickly reached the Cortland 18-yard line with 26 seconds left to play.
Two running plays followed by two timeouts used up the rest of the game clock, and this final Cortland celebration could not begin until Red Hawks junior place-kicker Jake Delvento’s bid for a game-winning 30-yard field goal fluttered well left of the goal posts at the southern end of the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex.
“This is a great group of guys and basically we knew our offense was going to come up strong in the end,” said junior inside linebacker Bill Smith after Cortland scored 10 unanswered fourth quarter points to take over first place in the NJAC standings with a 7-1 record.
“We had confidence in our entire team, like we have all season, and the scoreboard shows it,” added Smith, who contributed eight tackles to this gritty defensive effort. “This is the greatest team I’ve ever been a part of, such a close-knit team.”
What proved to be the most crucial play came after Montclair State became the first team to score a first quarter touchdown against the Red Dragons this season, on an 8-yard run by Matt Jimenez. Cortland senior defensive tackle Lou Crispo then blocked Delvento’s extra-point try, which ended up being the difference in the game.
WITH A 7-1 NJAC record, Cortland still needs to beat William Paterson at home this coming Saturday to secure at worst a share of first place in the conference standings. The Red Dragons close out the regular season in two weeks hosting the annual Cortaca Jug game against Ithaca College, a non-conference affair.
Both Montclair and Rowan are 6-1 in conference play and 7-1 overall with two league contests left. If there is a two-way or three-way tie two weeks from now, tie-breaking procedures will determine who gets the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Division III playoffs.
All those scenarios seemed to be a moot point as Cortland fell behind 9-0 by half-time, managing just 68 yards of offense over those opening 30 minutes. Two big punt returns by Montclair’s Dan Keegan set up the two scores by the visitors.
And the deficit could have been even more after a Pitcher sideline pass was picked off by Montclair cornerback Kevin Cloughessy, returned to the Cortland 25 with just 14 seconds left in the half. Two plays later, Cortland cornerback Joe Lopez picked off an underthrown end zone toss to keep the Red Hawks from adding to their lead.
Senior Lopez now has interceptions in five straight games, a school record.
A running game featuring a hard-earned 122 yards from Justin Autera helped turn things around in the second half, the sophomore and senior Anthony Giuliano combining to get things moving in Cortland’s wildcat formation taking direct snaps from center Corey Hymes.
The first real Cortland scoring chance late in the third quarter, helped by a couple of Montclair penalties, would reach the opponent’s 11-yard line. That’s where defensive tackle Bobby Kinner forced a fumble by sacking Pitcher, the Red Hawks recovering.
An 11-play drive on Cortland’s next possession, including a leaping 28-yard Humphrey catch of a third down Pitcher pass over the middle, led to a Corrado 36-yard field goal with 11:44 left to play that made this a 9-3 ball game.
After an exchange of punts, Cortland went from its own 45 to the Montclair 33. But Pitcher lost seven yards being sacked, two plays went nowhere and with 2:19 left head coach Dan MacNeill pondered pulling a fake punt out from the Red Dragons’ playbook.
“WE WERE CONCERNED because their defense is pretty good,” said MacNeill. “When do we use the fake punt? I was ready to use it and then it got to 4th-and-17 and then I thought, oh god, we can’t use it there. There were only two minutes, but we’ve got three timeouts, so use your defense, use your timeouts, and it worked perfectly.”
Cortland used its timeouts, the defense held Montclair to six rushing yards and a shanked 21-yard punt put the Red Dragons in business at the visitors’ 39.
Taking the field with 1:43 left, Pitcher found former back-up quarterback and now 6-foot-8 back-up tight end Rob Von Bargen for an 8-yard completion over the middle. That was followed by a 12-yard hookup to Giuliano, the last of his five team-high catches.
After a flushed Pitcher was forced to throw away a first down pass play, Humphrey was hit in stride in the right-hand corner of the Montclair end zone. That connection extended Pitcher’s streak of throwing TD passes to 10 straight games, a school record for the former Cortland High signal-caller.
“He (the Montclair defender) was playing inside of me, so I just gave him a good stick inside. It was just a basic corner route,” said Humphrey, a 5-foot-10 sophomore out LeRoy. “I thought we made pretty good adjustments at half-time, and obviously we played better in the second half.”
Cortland finished with a slight 255-227 edge in total yards, most of those coming in the second half.
“We saw them on film and their defense was just disciplined, really with no weaknesses,” said Pitcher of the Red Hawks. “We knew we could do some things, but looking at them there weren’t going to be a lot of big plays there. So it was going to be a game where we grind it out.
“What a game of field position. It was kick, kick, kick and we’re gaining a couple of yards every time,” Pitcher added, though punters Pete Furey from Cortland and Joe Liscio of Montclair both averaged 33 yards per boot. “Once we starting running a little bit, the confidence and everything started building and building.”
DRAGON TALES: Montclair closes conference play hosting Brockport and traveling to William Paterson, while Rowan hosts winless Western Connecticut before going to The College of New Jersey... Montclair had just one first down in the second half before that final drive, the only time the Red Hawks crossed midfield over the final 30 minutes... Montclair held the edge in field position in the first half thanks to four key kick returns that totaled 133 yards in the first half. “That’s what we talked about at half-time,” said Coach MacNeill. “We just had to stop kicking to them. We maybe underestimated their returners, but their blockers did a good job of holding us up.”... Cortland kicker Corrado would be named the NJAC Special Teams Player of the Week for his field goal and game-winning PAT.... Montclair coach Rick Giancola and his coaching staff were in stunned silence well after the game. “I just have no answers for you right now,” the Red Hawks head man said. His team managed just seven first downs the entire game, compared to 18 for the Red Dragons.
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