November 9, 2012
Cortaca challenge for rested Dragons
With the regular season winding down, where did SUNY Cortland head football coach Dan MacNeill find himself this past Saturday afternoon?
“Knee deep in paint,” said MacNeill, tending to work projects at home instead of working the sidelines for the Red Dragons.
With Superstorm Sandy sacking New Jersey for a considerable loss last week, Cortland’s scheduled trip to William Paterson to finish off the New Jersey Athletic Conference season was canceled. So MacNeill and his players got a rare and unexpected Saturday respite.
For a team riding a seven-game winning streak and coming off two emotional victories, staging comebacks that upended Rowan 24-21 and Kean 31-17 to secure first place in the league standings, halting that momentum was not all that welcomed.
For a team what will now close our the regular season hosting arch rival Ithaca College in the 54th annual Cortaca Jug game Saturday at noon, having a little extra time to prepare for the Bombers out of the Empire 8 Conference was certainly welcomed.
“I was happy to come back to work actually after that,” MacNeill said after tending to household duties. “It got everyone’s attention away (from football), but it also gave us a couple of days to look at Ithaca. You know what? They’re a good team with a good offense. They present some real problems, and having a little more time is good. The kids don’t like it, but from a coach’s perspective we like it.”
So this turned into the second bye week for the Red Dragons this season, and you remembered how Cortland took advantage the first time around.
After being scorched by Buffalo State in a 49-31 season-opening setback, the Red Dragons used the ensuing two-week break to regroup. The result? Seven straight victories to win the conference and clinch a spot in the upcoming NCAA Division III national playoffs.
“We were fresh, we hit the road, we win seven straight,” said MacNeill. “The whole theme there is, all right, we get another bye week. The last bye week we won seven straight. After this bye week, you win seven straight and you win a national championship.”
BESIDES LOOKING TO keep the two precious Cortaca Jugs in their possession, Cortland (7-1) will also need a win over Ithaca (6-3) to be in position to host a first-round NCAA contest the following weekend.
“It’s the Cortaca Jug, and the kids get into that aspect of it,” said MacNeill, Cortland intent on a third straight victory in this memorable series between upstate rivals located some 20 miles apart who have squared off every autumn since 1948. “But they also know there’s more at stake, and that’s kind of neat.”
Though the players were itching to face William Paterson to conclude an unbeaten conference schedule, they took advantage of getting some rest. “From a physical standpoint, it was a great opportunity to heal those bumps and bruises for everyone on the team,” said junior running back Justin Autera.
After Autera missed the majority of 2011 — including Cortland’s 27-3 Cortaca Jug victory at Ithaca — with a knee injury that required surgery, a concussion and foot woes have slowed the 2010 NJAC Offensive Player of the Year this season. So the time off has refreshed the Red Dragons at a juncture of the season where everyone is feeling a bit battered.
“It definitely showed,” said Autera. “Just in (Tuesday’s) practice alone, everything seemed so much faster with everyone healed up.”
Offensive guard Randy Bloom has also been playing with a bad ankle that has forced him to the sideline on various occasions during games, so he didn’t mind extra time to heal for the Bombers.
“I’ve been battling an ankle sprain all year, but this past week having the week off really helped it a lot. I got to get off my feet and got to rest, so it was great,” said senior Bloom.
The break may also enable senior center Anthony Pedrotti, who has also suffered ankle woes this season, to be able to see some time against the Bombers.
Despite injuries on the offensive line, Cortland comes into the Cortaca Jug game averaging 40 points and 446 yards per game. Cortland had collected over 400 total yards of offense in a school-record seven straight games before being held to 332 yards in the win at Kean two weekends ago.
CORTLAND QUARTERBACK Chris Rose was picked off four times in that contest, and will face an Ithaca College secondary that tied a school record with six interceptions in a 28-7 win over Hartwick College last Saturday. Junior cornerback Brian Garvey had three of those picks and returned the last for a touchdown, earning him Empire 8 Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Junior safety Tom Scanlon has a team-high 60 tackles and sophomore outside linebacker Chris Williams has 52 tackles to lead the Bombers, while Garvey has five interceptions on the season.
Rose has completed 165-of-274 passes for 1,863 yards and 18 touchdowns. He spreads things around, as senior Mike Humphrey has 46 catches, sophomore Kordel McInnis 38 and sophomore Jack Delahunty 34 — though Delahunty has been battling recent injury woes and freshman DJ Spencer is listed as a starting wide receiver on the depth chart.
What makes Rose’s job easier is the fact he has only been sacked six times, a figure the offensive line takes pride in. Though Bloom and senior left tackle Mike Wurtzer are veterans, sophomore center Richard Fernandez, classmate and right tackle Shawn Stevenson and freshman left guard Vin Juliano will be making their first Cortaca starts.
Still, the success of this rebuilt offensive line has been crucial for Cortland.
“We gelled right away,” said Bloom of his fellow blockers, noting spring practice starting things rolling. “At spring ball we came together, and Coach (Steve) Potter was coaching us up and teaching us to be physical. That’s we we pride ourselves on is being the most physical line out there.”
That is reflected in Cortland’s ground game featuring senior Dorian Myles (107 carries-737 yards, 4 TDs), junior Autera (77-344, 3 TDs) and sophomore Bronson Greene (70-422, 8 TDs) as interchangeable tailbacks. “It changes it up, playing against defenses that have to prepare for three different backs,” said Bloom.
“There’s an attitude all the backs have to have going in, that you want to have the ball in your hands,” said Autera. “We’re fortunate enough to have the three outstanding backs we have, Bronson Greene being the power back with the great goal-line ability, Dorian being balanced and with speed; and me being pretty similar to that. It’s great being such good friends outside the field. It makes it easy for us. If one person makes a play, it just pushes us to want to make a play for the team.”
STOPPING IC RUNNERS like senior Clay Ardoin (170-934) or his senior back-up Jarrett Naiden (101-357) will be key to Cortland’s ever-improving defense — a group that’s come far from that opening day embarrassment at Buffalo State.
“We just need to do what we’ve done,” said Cortland senior defensive end Vaughn Labor of the keys to stopping Ithaca. “We have to stop the run. If we don’t stop the run that allows a team to do so much more against you.
“If you make them one-dimensional, it’s not going to guarantee success because Ithaca has a great quarterback and great receivers and they can throw the ball around as well, but it’s definitely going to take the pressure off us. If we can play physical and play downhill I think we’ll be all right.”
Junior Phil Neumann is the Ithaca quarterback who has thrown for 1,556 yards and 15 touchdowns, with senior Joe Ingrao a top target with 63 catches good for 879 yards and seven TDs.
Ithaca will go up against a defense that has 19 sacks on the season, that has set a school record by returning four interceptions for touchdowns. Senior cornerback Pete Furey and Labor did that trick in the win at Rowan, while sophomore cornerback Andrew Tolosi and freshman linebacker Matt Ambrose have also taken thefts the distance.
“It’s a great bunch of guys, tough guys, hard workers,” said Furey of the Cortland defense. “Once we started mingling together, working together as one unit, that’s when you started to see the success of the defense.”
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