In front of over 4,000 screaming fans intoxicated with school spirit at the annual Homecoming game, the Lions boasted a 27-21 overtime victory over the Pioneers of William Paterson University.
“It definitely makes a difference playing in your own stadium,” junior running back Daniel Dornacker said. “You see all your friends and players that you played with who graduated. It makes you want the win that much more to know that they are cheering the whole time behind you. The themes of today’s game were heart and togetherness.”
“The way it turned out was obviously a good thing,” head coach Eric Hamilton said. “It is part of the learning experience. I’m very happy to be able to come back and steal a win. It’s special. If it’s going to happen, to happen at Homecoming with a lot of people there … what they saw was a pretty good football game. This is a big boost for us.”
The Pioneers made it to the Lions’ 1-yard line on their first overtime possession for what looked like a touchdown until the Lions defense forced a fumble. Freshman linebacker Allen Mantz recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchback.
On this, the first Lions’ possession of overtime, freshman quarterback Chris James made a 5-yard run to the end zone to seal the victory.
The touchdown brought the Lions back to an even record at 3-3. James had added a spark to the Lions offense when he came in to replace senior quarterback Chris Bell and rushed for 58 yards on 17 carries, went 5-for-9 in passing with 70 yards and finished with two touchdowns.
“The momentum was switching, but we knew as a team that if we executed the plays that we couldn’t lose,” James said. “It’s always a rush when you get out there in front of so many people, but my line blocked well and the running backs ran hard and we played well overall.”
“Today’s game was a very big contribution to the bonding of our team,” Dornacker said. “Every game we have gotten better and we want to continue to do so. Today’s game served as a mental confidence builder to know that we will pick each other up when things don’t go our way, that offense and defense always has each other’s backs.”
The teams managed to keep their audience on the edge of its seats as they exchanged big play after big play.
The Lions opened the game with an 82-yard kickoff return from senior running back Cory Schoonover, which led to a Dornacker 1-yard touchdown run to give the Lions an early lead with 13:03 left to go in the quarter. Junior kicker Matt Dalessio missed the extra point attempt to put the score at 6-0.
“We definitely had the momentum in the first half,” Dornacker said. “Starting with Schoonover’s big kickoff return … and the defense came up with some big plays to give the offense good field position, also.”
Dornacker said that it was a huge emotional rush to be able to score in front of full stands at Homecoming, “But I can only run as far as the offensive line blocks. They did an outstanding job today in creating room to run. I can’t say enough good things about the heart of our offensive line.”
The Pioneers answered as sophomore running back Mike Vicci barreled through the Lions defense for a 17-yard touchdown run. Junior kicker Ricky Krautman made the extra point attempt to put the Pioneers ahead 7-6.
With 2:33 left to go in the first quarter, James contributed to the scoring and made a 9-yard touchdown run. Making it look easy, the Lions had a successful two-point conversion with Bell making the pass to junior tight end Chris Opdyke to give the College a 14-7 lead going into the second quarter.
This was James’ first full week in pads since he was injured scoring the winning touchdown over LaSalle University earlier this season. According to Hamilton, he should see a lot more playing time with Bell, while senior quarterback Jeff Struble showed that he can do a little bit of everything by punting in the game.
The longest drive of the day came at the start of the second quarter as the Lions kept possession for the first 8:17 of the quarter. After the 18-play, 97-yard drive, Dornacker tallied his second touchdown of the game with a 6-yard run. Dalessio made the extra point to give the Lions a 21-7 lead.
“It was good to see us take the ball the length of the field,” Hamilton said. “It’s about time because they have the capability to do it with the young set of guys we have.”
The Lions left little time for the Pioneers to have any shot at scoring in the rest of the half, but the Pioneers dominated the scoreboard in the third quarter, scoring twice in less than six minutes on a 1-yard run from Vicci and a 43-yard pass from quarterback Bryan Petite to John Malone. After a successful kick by Krautman, the score was deadlocked at 21 for the rest of regulation.
“I’m extremely disappointed with the way we started the second half,” Hamilton said. “All too often, the third quarter in three of our games has been our Achilles’ heel. The good part is that we have been able to overcome that in the fourth quarter. We had chances but we made a couple of bad decisions. It was a drive that we kept alive with penalties; that’s a drive we should have stopped.”
“In the second half, they made some adjustments on offense and took it to us,” Dornacker said. “Fortunately, we were able to put together a couple of drives to change the field position game after they got their scores.”
The teams traded possessions during the fourth quarter but could not put points on the board.
Unlike the NFL, the NCAA overtime rule is that each team has a possession starting at the opposite team’s 25-yard line. The second team has to either match or beat the first team’s points in the possession to continue or win the game.
After a Pioneer fumble, the Lions recovered and James walked into the end zone for the victory. The Lions had 21 first downs to the Pioneers’ 16. William Paterson had 271 yards of offense while the Lions had a solid game with 333 yards on offense.
“I’m very, very happy for them; it’s tough to get excited when you see the (negative) things that happened,” Hamilton said. “It’s a sense of relief as well as good for the players. The difference is now we are 3-3 and Paterson is going to struggle. It is character building for us and a big confidence boost. Now we have some possibility to have a good record … It is good to get this win under our belt because now we have a great opportunity to make a difference in the conference.”
The defenses of both teams had their strengths. The Pioneers intercepted the Lions’ quarterbacks five times for 16 yards, three from Bell and two from James, while the Lions defense sacked Petite five times for a loss of 38 total yards.
“Very rarely do you make five turnovers in a game and still win. One interception was a Hail Mary so that one doesn’t bother me,” Hamilton said. “One bounced out of the receiver’s hands into the defense’s; what are you going to do about that? The other three were frustrating because it is all the things we practice that shouldn’t happen.”
“The sacks that our defense came up with were huge when considering the momentum of the game,” Dornacker said. “Again, I feel like with the home field advantage, our mistakes were looked at optimistically, and when we came up with big plays the momentum was immediately put in our favor and magnified.”
The Lions dominated time of possession 47:58 to 27:02 and led in third-down conversions, as they were successful on eight of 16 chances to the Pioneers’ four of 13 chances.
“I think we should have beat them by more,” James said. “But a win is a win and we came together today and pulled it out.”
Next on the Lions’ schedule is a visit to Western Connecticut State University, which beat William Paterson on a last-second field goal. The game is scheduled to take place on Oct. 21 at noon.
“(Western) Connecticut is a very strong team and going up to their place will be a challenge,” Dornacker said. “We have been in every game that we’ve played so far, win or lose, and as long as we go up there with the attitude that we brought today, we have every reason to be confident.”