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November 24, 2008

 

Cortland gets Curry next after opening playoff win

FootballJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland receiver Zacc Guaragno (80) tries to head downfield after a short reception in the fourth quarter against Plymouth State Saturday. Guaragno caught a touchdown pass as the Red Dragons opened the NCAA Division III playoffs with a 31-14 victory.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Writer

While glancing over the game statistics from this NCAA Division III playoff victory, a strange thought struck SUNY Cortland head football coach Dan MacNeill.
Having just conducted a post-game press conference inside the Chugger Davis Building located at the north end of the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex, having finally escaped Saturday’s bitter cold, MacNeill looked up from his reading with a puzzled expression.
“Our kids are cheering for Ithaca’s loss, but disappointed at not getting a second chance at them,” noted MacNeill. “It’s an interesting dynamic.”
Yes, Cortland took care of its first round business by defeating Plymouth State 31-14 as senior quarterback Ray Miles and senior tailback Andrew Giuliano set single season school records for passing and rushing, respectively.
No, the Red Dragons will not get a chance to avenge their only loss this season with an anticipated second round game against archrival Ithaca College. Curry College from Massachusetts spoiled those plans, a late fourth quarter touchdown drive pulling off a 26-21 first round upset at Ithaca’s Butterfield Stadium.
Though the Red Dragons will not get a chance to avenge a 35-13 loss to Ithaca in the 50th Cortaca Jug game back on Nov. 15th, a setback that spoiled a bid for an unbeaten regular season, they will get a nice consolation prize — another NCAA home game.
Cortland (10-1) will host Curry (10-1) at noon this coming Saturday back at the Stadium Complex.
The Red Dragons advance thanks to a turnover-free performance on this well-chilled and snow-filled afternoon where the wind chill factor was a toasty two degrees on your Fahrenheit thermometer. After having a full house for the Cortaca Jug game the previous weekend, when 10,300 tickets were distributed, there were only 406 paying customers who braved the conditions to watch this NCAA opening round contest.
After falling behind 6-0 early in the second quarter, the Red Dragons scored 31 unanswered points to spoil the upset bid by the Panthers (10-2), who arrived from New Hampshire with a nine-game winning streak and a New England Football Conference playoff title.
Miles threw for 175 yards and had touchdown pass plays to senior wideouts Eric Hajnos, Mike Lane and Zacc Guaragno. His 2,439 yards passing this season is a Cortland single season record.
Giuliano rushed for 113 yards and a first half touchdown before taking a large chunk of the second half off to give a pair of sprained ankles some rest. His 1,436 yards rushing this season is a Cortland single season record.
Cortland was out-gained by Plymouth State 308-288. Three turnovers hurt the Panthers, however, as Cortland senior safety Matt Berman recovered one of two lost fumbles and also picked off a pass.
THE DRAGON DEFENSE also helped Giuliano out-rush Plymouth State tailback Jeff Mack in a showdown of Division III national leaders — eighth-ranked Mack coming in averaging 152.6 yards per game to 15th-ranked Giuliano’s 132.3 yards per contest.
Mack did hit 100 yards right on the nose with his 27th carry late in the fourth quarter. That was the first time the Red Dragons have allowed any individual to rush for 100 yards in a game this season.
“They were hard to block,” said Plymouth State coach Paul Castonia of the Red Dragon success stopping his running attack. And Castonia has folks like 6-foot-4, 340-pound right tackle Zac Duval on his side.
“We wanted to make our guy look better,” said senior linebacker Jim Smith of the mission of the Red Dragons defense. “We have a good running back, too, and we want him to win all the awards. We want our guy to look good.”
Cortland did just that while holding a Plymouth rushing attack that was averaging just under 300 yards per game to 137 yards on 49 carries. That is why senior quarterback John DeMarco had to launch an uncharacteristic 18 passes after the Panthers fell behind, completing half of those for 171 yards.
While Coach MacNeill praised the work of Smith, who was given extra defensive duties when the Red Dragons decided to go with just three defensive backs while inserting sophomore Colin Shue as a fourth linebacker, plenty of other Red Dragons stood out.
Berman had a team best 11 tackles to go along with his fumble recovery and pick. Senior defensive tackles Richard Rolo and Lou Crispo were both in on 10 tackles, as was sophomore linebacker Brian Haas. Shue also made MacNeill’s defensive scheme work with seven tackles and a fumble recovery, and was in on three of Cortland’s five quarterback sacks.
IT WAS A CAUTIOUS opening quarter, especially with the Red Dragons working into a stiff northwesterly wind. “With the play calling, both sides had a challenge when going into the wind,” said MacNeill, Cortland simply handing the ball to Giuliano on the first six plays before trying an unsuccessful screen pass.
Still, the game’s first BIG play would be into that frigid breeze, coming from Plymouth State early in the second quarter. DeMarco scrambled away from trouble and, on the run, threw a perfect sideline strike to J.J. Brooks for a 50-yard hook-up to the Cortland 26-yard line.
Three plays later DeMarco scored on a 5-yard option keeper and, after the extra-point boot drifted off wide right, the Panthers were up 6-0.
“It was going our way in the first 15 minutes, and that’s the kind of game we like to play,” said Coach Castonia of his Panthers. “But when you give up big plays like we did, it takes you out of your element a little bit.”
Cortland responded to falling behind by getting 24 points out of its next four possessions — starting with a 5-play, 61-yard drive capped by a 30-yard Giuliano off-tackle end zone scamper. Jeffrey Lang’s extra point put the Red Dragons in front for keeps.
An 11-yard Plymouth punt into the wind led to a 50-yard Cortland drive that saw Miles loft 39-yard post pattern touchdown pass that Hajnos caught in stride for a 14-6 lead.
After the defense stopped a fourth down Plymouth pass with 1:28 left, Cortland took over from its own 28 and used three timeouts wisely in a drive that set up a Lang 32-yard field goal with 17 seconds to go before the break.
THE DEFENSE CAME came up big in the third quarter as Cortland pulled away.
Rolo threw DeMarco for a loss on a 3rd-and-2 option run, Plymouth punted to midfield and Cortland scored in just six plays with Miles throwing a 3-yard slant pass to Lane.
Defensive end Bryan Wiley forced a fumble from a scrambling DeMarco that Berman recovered and returned to the Cortland 24. Though Cortland did not take advantage — because an illegal shift penalty wiped out what would have been a 73-yard Guaragno touchdown pass play — punter Kyle Peterson got off a 50-yard boot to the Panthers’ 10-yard line.
Crispo nearly sacked DeMarco for a safety on a third down pass and Plymouth could only punt the ball out to the 25-yard line. But the Panthers held, only to have a desperate fourth down gamble from their own 35 fail on an incompletion.
On the next play, Guarango caught a wide-receiver screen and skipped through some missed tackles for a 35-yard touchdown that wrapped things up.
Plymouth put together one final drive that led to DeMarco completing a 21-yard pass to Brooks for a touchdown with 4:42 left to play. Mack tacked on a two-point conversion run.
But Cortland recovered the ensuing on-side kick to end any comeback hopes. The Red Dragons also were able to recover from the disappointment of last week’s loss to Ithaca.
“It’s a mature group,” said MacNeill of his team. “They was good enthusiasm all week after such a disappointing loss.”