The Lions football team won its season opener against SUNY Cortland 17-14 in comeback fashion on Saturday, picking up its first New Jersey Athletic Conference victory of the year.
“It was very important for us to start the season off with a win because if we didn’t beat Cortland, who is an NJAC rival, the chances of the playoffs for us become very slim,” senior defensive back Steve Andrews said. “We play a very hard schedule and we have to beat every NJAC team for our best shot at the playoffs.”
Junior placekicker Blake Abbot nailed a game-winning 23-yard field goal with five minutes and five seconds remaining while freshman backup quarterback Jeff Struble completed six of eight passes for 123 yards on the College’s final two scoring drives to cap the come-from-behind victory.
Trailing 14-7 in the fourth quarter, Struble entered the game for junior starting quarterback Nick D’Aconti and hit junior wide receiver Alan Kotteles with a 46-yard pass to move the Lions to the Cortland 27-yard line. Two plays later, junior running back Gregg Silvesti ran 27 yards untouched for the game-tying touchdown.
The Lions’ defense forced the Red Dragons to punt on their following possession and the Lions began the game-winning drive from their own 18-yard line with 12:08 remaining.
Faced with third-and-15 after a Cortland sack, Struble connected with sophomore running back Cory Schoonover for a deep 35-yard pass. Two plays later, Struble scrambled 13 yards to a first down and Cortland’s 39-yard line.
Head coach Eric Hamilton said although Struble was going to play in the game regardless, he opted to use the freshman during the fourth quarter because he’s an effective runner and puts more pressure on the defense.
“We needed the change,” he said. “The offense was struggling and we tried to get a kick start. (Struble) gave us another dimension to our offense and kind of got us going.”
“Our quarterbacks were being pressured a lot in the second half so I think Struble was a little better at getting away from the rush,” Andrews said. “Both quarterbacks played well, but sometimes in a football game something different provides a spark and Struble really gave us that.”
Struble then completed a five-yard pass to Kotteles and a 21-yard pass to Schoonover to march the Lions down to the Cortland 13-yard line. Two more rushes for three yards from Silvesti and a three-yard scramble from Struble put the Lions at fourth-and-three on the Cortland 6-yard line.
Abbot, who had missed a 48-yard attempt in the second quarter, came in and converted a 23-yard field goal to give the College its 17-14 lead.
Senior linebacker Ray Bateman put an end to the Red Dragons’ final drive and sealed the victory by intercepting a pass from freshman quarterback Alex Smith with 3:19 to go.
“Any NJAC victory is extremely important and this one as no different,” sophomore wide receiver Ryan Ross said. “We were really happy to go up to Cortland and get a win. It was a great way to start the season.”
It was the Lions defense that held the Red Dragons’ offense scoreless throughout the second half and kept the game within reach for the offense. Cortland’s only second half points came off a fumble recovered for a touchdown against the College’s offense.
At the start of the third quarter, the Cortland offense moved the ball to the Lions’ 2-yard line but was stopped by the College’s defense on four straight attempts to put the ball in the end zone for a goal-line stand.
“The goal-line stand was probably the most impressive thing I have seen our defense do in my four years here,” Andrews said. “We weren’t playing up to our potential and the fact that Cortland even got to the goal line showed us we weren’t doing it. We stepped it up and from that moment on I really don’t think Cortland gained any positive yardage.”
The College put its first seven points on the board in the first quarter thanks to 54 rushing yards on 10 carries from Silvesti, who totaled 93 on 27 carries in the game, and a yard touchdown pass from D’Aconti to senior wide receiver Joe Bergondo.
“The whole team was able to put it together, from the great defensive play, to our offense getting it done when we had to and the special teams doing their jobs,” Bergondo said.
Senior linebacker Steve Vogt picked up 11 tackles, nine of them solo, while junior linebacker Josh Baker had seven tackles.
The Lions will travel to Philadelphia to take on LaSalle University at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
“They knocked us off last year,” Hamilton said. “We had a 24-7 lead at halftime. We let one get away. It would be nice to go down and get a win against a nice division I-AA non-scholarship team.”