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November 21, 2011

 

Cortland captures bowl finale

FootballBob Ellis/staff photographer
Senior cornerback D.J. Romano of SUNY Cortland dives to slap away a pass to Scott Pillar of Albright College during Saturday’s ECAC Southeast Bowl. Romano tied a school record with his 15th career interception as the Red Dragons posted a 14-0 shutout.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

This final football victory had been tucked away thanks to a seasoned quarterback and a stubborn defense, leaving SUNY Cortland head football coach Dan MacNeill a bit melancholy.
The Red Dragons shut down Albright College 14-0 on a breezy Saturday afternoon and had just held their post-season prize — an ECAC Southeast Bowl trophy — aloft at the middle of their Stadium Complex home turf. That’s when MacNeill tried to put into words what this all meant to a special bunch of senior players.
“I’m not ready to let them go, but you’ve got to do it though, right?” said MacNeill after a successful 9-2 campaign capped off by six consecutive victories concluded with this post-season outing.
“It happens every year, and this is it. This is a special group, enriching for me,” he added. “I have a special affinity for any group that played for me, but they were fun to be around and no one wanted it to end.”
Over the past two seasons, these seniors compiled a sparkling 19-4 won-loss record at Cortland.
Quarterback Dan Pitcher, among the departing senior class that includes younger brother and fellow Cortland High alum Matt Pitcher at offensive right tackle, capped his Cortland career with a pair of first half touchdown passes. The graduate student threw for 270 yards under difficult conditions and was named the game’s most valuable player.
The Red Dragons defense, with junior linebacker Chris Bright and senior cornerback D.J. Romano coming up with crucial interceptions, kept an opponent out of the end zone for the second straight weekend. And Albright (6-5) had arrived from Reading, Pa., averaging nearly 396 yards and 34.4 points per game.
Junior linebacker Mike Wilson had nine tackles to lead the defense, while senior inside linebacker Bill Smith was in on eight tackles and broke up a pair of passes.
“It was a good way to go out,” said Romano, whose second half interception was the 15th of his career to tie the school record. “We haven’t really gotten the respect we deserve on defense in the NJAC (New Jersey Athletic Conference), so coaches are always saying” ‘Just take it, don’t let anyone give it to you, just take it.’ So we took it today... 14-0.”
It was a satisfying ending to a season where the two Cortland stumbles — close losses to NJAC foes Kean and Montclair State — were by a grand total of six points.
“Nine and two sounds pretty good to me. This is one of the best ones to play here,” said MacNeill of this team.
ALBRIGHT CERTAINLY kept Cortland from breezing to victory, though the Red Dragons dominated the early moments.
The visiting Lions had three-and-outs on their first two possessions. Cortland had an opening drive bogged down at the visitor’s 15-yard line and had field goal bid blocked. And after John Babin returned a punt 24 yards to the Albright 40 to start the Red Dragons’ second possession, they scored in just three plays with freshman Kordel McInnis breaking free for a 29-yard touchdown on a well-executed wide receiver screen pass.
When Cortland faked the extra point boot, holder and back-up QB Chris Rose running in for two points, the Red Dragons were 8-0 leaders midway through that opening quarter.
Things weren’t so easy the rest of the way, however.
The Red Dragons had to turn away Albright first half drives to the Cortland 20- and 2-yard lines — coming up with fourth down stops on both occasions. And when a pass slipped through leading receiver Babin’s hands to be picked off by Albright safety Drew Peterson, the Lions were set-up at the Cortland 24-yard line with 28 seconds left to do some damage before halftime arrived.
But the damage over those final seconds would be done by Cortland.
First, linebacker Bright picked off a sideline pass and appeared headed for a long touchdown return — only to be ruled to have stepped out of bounds at the Cortland 45-yard line.
From there, with just 16 ticks of the clock left, Cortland needed just two plays to find the end zone.
Junior wide receiver Mike Humphrey made a stretching grab of a 25-yard Pitcher pass over the middle, leaving Cortland 30 yards away from the end zone with 9.5 seconds left. After a time-out, Pitcher then lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone that a well-covered Babin somehow latched onto with his feet in play.
“I made a mistake earlier in the game, didn’t catch a ball I should have caught, and I just had an opportunity to catch the ball and did. It was a big touchdown for this game,” said Babin, though the Albright sideline debated whether he had a foot in play at the time of the catch.
“I was pretty sure I got two feet in, actually. The ref was right there, so I’m pretty sure he got it right,” added Babin.
THOUGH CORTLAND botched the PAT, a 14-0 lead was nice to take into halftime. That was it for the scoring on this day, though, in a game where the Red Dragons enjoyed a 354-292 yardage advantage.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t get anything in the second half,” said MacNeill, the Red Dragons missing two more field goal attempts.
The defense came up with a crucial third quarter stop, Romano picking off a fourth down pass in the end zone after Albright had reached the 9-yard line. A 54-yard run by tailback Josan Holmes created that scoring chance for the Lions, Cortland safety Steve Lenhard coming up with a TD-saving tackle on that long scamper.
Romano and top Albright receiver Scott Pillar had been dueling throughout the day. While Pillar caught seven passes for 90 yards, Romano made some big break-ups, too, and guessed right on the interception that denied the visitors some second half momentum.
“It feels good to finally get after it with someone like that the whole game,” said the 5-foot-8 all-conference cornerback, Romano also chirping with Albright sideline for most of the game. “They were really starting with me, but it was only good fun. During the game things happen, but at the end it is all respect.”
In the end this Cortland win was celebrating some record-setting performances, too.
QB Pitcher finished his career throwing touchdown passes in 13 consecutive games. In his two-plus seasons as a starter, only in a Cortaca Jug victory over Ithaca a year ago did he fail to deliver a scoring strike. The 31 touchdown pass thrown this season and the 55 TD tosses for his career, are also school records.
Babin set school records with 16 touchdown receptions, 72 passes caught and 1,183 receiving yards this season — though his day was dampened by a second half knee injury that keep him sidelined for most of the fourth quarter.
“It feels pretty good,” said Babin of his knee afterwards. “It’s a little scary, but it’s a little sprain and I should be fine.”

 

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