By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
Those squads will spend the next four weeks exploring new matchups, renewing old rivalries and settling scores from playoffs past as they determine who will play in the championship game in Frisco, TX in January.
The CAA, as expected, was rewarded with multiple bids, including a fifth slot for James Madison after Youngstown State, Illinois State and Indiana State coughed up chances at at-large slots with losses at home. Each CAA team can come up with a gripe or two about their matchup or venue but at the end of the day, the conference has a quarter of the field and a good chance to put a team in the championship game for the eighth time in the last nine years. Let the playoffs begin!
Maine at New Hampshire
Maine had a shot at the CAA title and New Hampshire had a shot at the playoffs and maybe a first-round bye so what better thing to play for than a gun? The two New England foes met for the Bryce-Cowell musket with as much on the line as this rivalry has seen in years.
Maine made the first big play as Troy Russell intercepted Kevin Decker at UNH’s 36-yard line early in the first quarter. Two plays later, senior running back Pushaun Brown, looking to be rounding back into form after fighting the injury bug, broke into the New Hampshire secondary and rolled 33 yards for an early 7-0 lead.
But the Wildcats answered back in style on the ensuing drive, when coach McDonnell gambled on 4th-and-8 from the Maine 34 and Decker hit RJ Harris down the left sideline to even things at 7-7.
However, the Black Bears were getting reports from Rhode Island that Towson had a fight on their hands and the possibility of an outright CAA crown fired up the visitors. Quarterback Warren Smith scored from two yards out and late in the first quarter and Brian Harvey added a 41-yard field goal midway through the second for a 17-7 lead. Mike MacArthur connected from 32 yards out for the home team, but Maine took a 17-10 lead to the locker room at halftime in the 99th meeting between the schools.
The surprise of the day was the play of redshirt freshman Nico Steriti, who stepped in for the injured Dontra Peters and rushed for 150 yards on 21 carries. The youngster got things started for the Wildcats in the third as he broke loose for a 56-yard run. When a personal foul penalty on Maine was tacked on, UNH had the ball at the 11-yard line. On second down, Decker hit Jimmy Giansante in the left flat and the redshirt freshman followed his blockers into the end zone that cut the lead to 17-16, where it stayed when the extra point attempt failed.
Harvey’s put Maine back up 20-16 with a 21-yarder late in the third quarter and that’s when things got crazy. First, Steriti returned the kickoff 71 yards, adding to his legend in his first start. Then, on successive plays, UNH fumbled, Maine threw an interception and UNH returned the favor by throwing one as well. After a Maine first down seemed to settle things, Smith forced another throw and it was picked as well. For a quarterback who has made good decisions all season, the senior made some questionable decisions on the day and the UNH secondary made him pay for them.
After the second pick, Decker took advantage and hit RJ Harris for a 5-ard touchdown strike and a 23-20 lead. Incredibly, Stephen Thames forced another Maine turnover on the ensuing kickoff and Steriti rumbled 18 yards for a touchdown on the next play. Suddenly, a dogfight of a rivalry game turned into a sloppy two-score advantage for the Wildcats. An unexpected turn of events in a matter of minutes that would cost Maine a shot at a shared CAA title.
Maine would cut the lead to 30-27 and get the ball back but the comeback attempt ended on Chad Wilkes’ interception of Smith at the UNH 45 with just over a minute remaining.
On top of Steriti’s heroics, Decker finished 16-for-30 for 203 yards with three TDs and three INTs. Harris hauled in six passes for 106 total yards and scored on plays of 34 and five yards. He also returned two kickoffs for a total of 30 yards while being named CAA Rookie of the Week.
All in all, the game was the largely as expected and both teams were certainly playoff-worthy.
CAA Today contributor Peter Colby offered the following comments from Durham:
Another beautiful day for college football in Northern New England, perfect for players and fans. Three hours of high anxiety and great entertainment.
You wouldn't think a bunch of college guys would really care much about an old metal gun in a battered wood case, the Bryce-Cowell Musket. You wouldn't think they would actually play for such a thing. But you would be wrong. After the game the players were cavorting around, taking turns carrying it as if it was the most important thing in the world. And for that moment, it was.
Both teams will be on the road in the first round which was pretty much expected. New Hampshire will travel to Bozeman to face Montana State, something not unfamiliar to coach Sean McDonnell who played out there during his junior year at New Hampshire. The Wildcats have been road warriors for years so this is nothing new for them. I’ll discuss the matchup more next week.
We’ll also get more in-depth on Maine’s trip to Boone, NC to face Appalachian State. If not for a late escape against Elon, the Mountaineers probably wouldn’t be hosting but Jack Cosgrove and his players will be looking to repeat 2002, when the Black Bears made a similar trip and came away with a win.
Towson at Rhode Island
The Towson Tigers were only a win away from their first CAA title and the greatest turnaround in league history, but they needed a win at Meade Stadium in Kingston, RI, a place that has become a tough venue to get a victory this season.
Towson has made a habit of fast starts this season, but it the host Rams who got out quickly, jumping to a 10-0 lead behind Rob Bentsen and an offense that rolled up a 116-19 advantage in yards in the first quarter. Bentsen’s 20-yard scoring strike to Joe Migliarese was a gut-check for the young Tigers, who responded as they have all season, with a grinding drive quarterbacked by Grant Enders and capped off by a Terrance West touchdown. Enders kept the drive alive with a six-yard run on third-and-four from the Ram 14 yard line and West followed shortly after with a touchdown from three yards out.
Rhode Island tried to answer and drove into Towson territory, but Joe Trainer’s call for a fake punt was sniffed out by the Towson special teams and the Tiger offense went to work again. This time it was a 61 yard drive that took twelve plays. A couple of third down conversions kept the drive alive before West scored again on a 10-yard run that gave the Tigers their first lead at 14-10, a score that held into halftime after Louis Feinstein missed a 38-yard field goal for the Rams.
The second half began as the first half ended, with the Tigers offense rolling down the field, this time eating up 65 yards in nine plays. Two big plays from Enders, first a 30-yard strike to tight end Mike Evans and a 21-yard scoring pass to wideout Tom Ryan highlighted the drive that gave Towson a solid 21-10 lead.
Rhode Island has defended its home field well this year and they weren’t going to roll over and they got some help from Towson’s excessive celbration penalty after the touchdown. Taking advantage of the field position they moved inside the Tiger ten-yard lien. Senior fullback Chris Mancuso converted a fourth-and-two and then the Rams got creative as defensive tackle Willie McGinnis came in at running back and bulled his way into the end zone from six yards out and a 21-17 score.
The game hung in the balance from there, but the Rams failed to take advantage of opportunities and Towson made plays when necessary. First, Rhode Island recovered a fumble at the Towson 44, but were unable to move the ball and punted. Then, after getting the ball back and driving into Towson territory, an interception at the Towson 17 snuffed out another threat. Lastly, a fumbled lateral and mediocre punt from Feinstein gave the Tigers good field position in Rhode Island territory.
From there, the Tigers took advantage as Enders hit Ryan again, this time from 18 yards out and Towson had a comfortable 28-17 lead. The Towson defense made a couple more plays and the Turnaround Tigers miracle season was complete. The team that went 0-8 in CAA play the year before finished 7-1 in the league and, coupled with Maine’s loss at UNH, the Tigers were outright CAA champions.
“This is such a great moment for Towson football,” coach Rob Ambrose admitted. “Winning a championship in the CAA is a tremendous accomplishment. This championship is for everyone who has ever worn a Towson football uniform. As a coach, you couldn’t ask for anything else from a team. At the start, the only ones who believed in us were ourselves, the Towson University community and the Towson football alumni.”
Enders led the Tigers with 272 yards of total offense. He completed 20 of 26 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. He was also the Tigers’ leading rusher with 60 yards on eight carries. Freshman standout Terrance West, the CAA rushing leader who has spearheaded the Tigers offense most of the season, was held to 52 yards on 19 carries. The Tigers came into the game averaging 248 rushing yards per game but URI held them to a season low of 154 yards.
Towson received a first-round bye and will face Lehigh next Saturday at Unitas Stadium.
They have become the first team in NCAA history to qualify for the NCAA post-season playoffs at the FCS level, the Division II level and the Division III level. The Tigers will be making their first NCAA post-season appearance since 1986.
However, you could tell during coach Rob Ambrose’s portion of the CAA coaches call that he was disappointed with the FCS selection committee. It has been almost a given that the CAA champion gets a seed, but this year was different, and the coach seemed to think that his team was given short-shrift because of its lack of tradition. Despite having beaten three top 15 teams and going 7-1 in the CAA, the Tigers weren’t given a seed and will face another top 10 team in the first round.
Looking at the bracket, though, if the Tigers can get past Lehigh they could face #2 seed North Dakota State but could also end up matched against CAA foe James Madison, which would be an intriguing matchup since the teams did not play this season. We’ll get more in-depth about the Tigers playoff road next week.
James Madison at Massachusetts
The University of Massachusetts Minutemen played their final CAA game last Saturday in Amherst, but it was James Madison that had something to play for. The Dukes would be scoreboard watching while trying to close out the season at 7-4 and hope for a playoff berth.
While waiting to see how things would develop in Youngstown, OH and Terre Haute, IN, James Madison seized control early. Jordan Anderson scored the first touchdown from a yard out before Mike Allen returned a Kellen Pagel pass 44 yards for a touchdown with eight and a half minutes left in the first. Pagel was returning to the lineup for the first time in three weeks and finished 20-36 for 236 yards and a touchdown, but the two interceptions hurt the Minutemen’s chances.
UMass got a break when a Minutemen punt hit the JMU returned in the foot and Ryan Carter recovered for the home team. The offense couldn’t do much put UMass got on the board with a 20-yard field goal from Brandon Yelovich. Before the Minutemen could get any ideas about a comeback, the Dukes took six minutes off the clock and got a 25-yard field goal from Cameron Stark. After forcing a punt, JMU went 80 yards in 8 plays that culminated with Dae’Quan Smith rolling in from 18 yards out for a 24-3 lead that the Dukes took to halftime.
The Minutemen got on the board first in the third quarter to cut the lead to 24-10, but two plays later Scott broke loose and scampered 76 yards for a 31-10 lead that crushed any hopes UMass had of going out a winner. Scott finished with 251 yards on 30 carries and was named CAA Offensive Player of the Week. The sophomore’s rushing total was the second-best in James Madison history and was part of a 386-yard effort from the Dukes rushing attack.
For the Minutemen, Perry McIntyre and Darren Thellen led the way, setting career highs in tackles with 17 and 14, respectively. UMass closed out their 46th year at McGuirk Stadium with a record of 172-79-2. They will play at Gillette Stadium for the next two seasons as they move into the Mid-American conference on the FBS level.
UMass has been an FCS member since 1978 when the division was first formed. In that time span, UMass has won 22 conference championships, made eight (8) NCAA Tournament appearances winning the 1998 National Championship Title and has played in the NCAA Championship game three times (1978, 1998, and 2006). UMass has been a member of the Yankee Conference, the Atlantic 10 and most recently the Colonial Athletic Association.
Coach Kevin Morris was let go by UMass earlier in the week. The move was not entirely a surprise given the Minutemen’s move to FBS, but it was disappointing for Coach Morris who had hoped to lead the transition to the next level. However, the administration made the decision to put a fresh face on the program.
I’ll cover JMU’s playoff match later in the column.
Delaware at Villanova
If Delaware was to have any shot at a playoff berth, they first had to end a five-year losing streak to their fierce rivals in the Battle of the Blue. In front of 14,000-plus fans at the home of MLS’ Philadelphia Union, the two CAA stalwarts closed the season with sprited fight at PPL park in Chester, PA.
The first American football game at the two-year old soccer stadium started well for Delaware as Travis Hawkins 69-yard kickoff return to open the game provided good field position that resulted in a Sean Baner 26-yard field goal.
However, the Wildcats had won the Battle of the Blue trophy every year since it was introduced in 2006 and they weren’t going to give it up easily. First they settled for a 19-yard field goal from Mark Hamilton to close the first quarter. Then, Jamal Abdur-Rahman broke free and romped 58 yards down the right sideline to give the Wildcats a 10-3 lead with 13:20 left in the second quarter.
Undeterred, the Blue Hens responded with another Baner field goal from 34 yards. The game then took a turn as Delaware safety Ricky Tunstall picked off Villanova quarterback Chris Polony in the end zone. The Blue Hens then marched 80 yards, led by Andrew Pierce, who carried the ball thirteen times on the drive, including nine straight plays at one point. The sophomore All-American finally leaped in from one-yard out with 12 seconds left in the half for a 13-10 lead. The workhorse back ul;timately carried 40 times for 109 yards as he closed out another big season for KC Keeler with 108 carries in the final three weeks.
"It doesn't matter to me how many times I carry it," said Pierce. "I always give my offensive line the glory because they carried it 40 times with me. Whatever it takes to win. I felt like I was in a war tonight. I feel good that I was able to help carry my team to a win."
Abdur-Rahman broke loose again for a 45-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to put Villanova back on top but when Delaware defensive end Michael Atunrase blocked Hamilton's extra point attempt, the Wildcat lead was only three, 16-13.
This proved key on the next drive as Delaware converted four third downs before Baner kicked his third field goal from 40 yards for a 16-16 tie with 8:45 left. The Blue Hen defense held and started with good field position at their 49 afte a good return from Rob Jones. Quarterback Tim Donnelly worked the ball to Jones and Nihja White to get into scoring position again and Baner converted from 29-yards out to give the Blue Hens a 19-16 lead with 2:11 left. Baner’s fourth field goal, part of a 14-point day overall, tied his own school record and led him to be named the CAA Special Teams Player of the Week.
Villanova still had time to work with and Polony was looking to keep the Big Blue trophy on the Main Line but Tunstall intercepted another pass and returned it 54 yards yards for a 26-16 lead. Tunstall’s big plays led him to be named CAA Defensive Player of the Week and helped finally lead Delaware to a victory in the rivalry after five years of frustration.
"We had lost five in a row to these guys and that had to stop," said coach Keeler. "We have both had some pretty good teams the last few years and last season we lost in overtime. ."We've done everything we can do," said Keeler about a playoff bid. "We are ranked in the Top 15, we've won three straight, and we are the only team in the country that has beaten two Top 10 teams (Towson and Old Dominion). How can you leave us out."
Unfortunately for Delaware, they were done in by a loss on the road at Rhode Island that cost the Blue Hens an 8-3 finish and a seventh DI win. The FCS selection committee has made it clear that failing to get seven DI wins will most likely leave a team short of selection and showed they will stick to that in leaving a talented Delaware team at home. Ultimately, KC Keeler’s team was too inconsistent and it cost them in their three CAA losses.
William & Mary at Richmond
There wasn’t much on the line but pride at Robins Stadium, but the Oldest Rivalry in the South produced another classic in its 121st playing even as William & Mary and Richmond closed out disappointing seasons.
After a missed Richmond field goal, the Tribe got on the board first with an 8 play, 78-yard drive featuring six carries from Jonathan Grimes for 53 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown scamper to close things out. Richmond evened things up after an interception of Caprio that started the drive at the William & Mary 32. It only took one play to get in the end zone as senior Aaron Corp hit Ben Edwards for the score. The Spiders then converted a two-point play for an 8-7 lead.
The Tribe responded with Caprio hitting DJ Mangus with a 17-yard scoring strike but Jimmye Laycock strangely went for two despite being early in the second quarter and the failed attempt left the score at 13-8. A 35-yard field goal by Richmond’s Remington Hinshaw cut the margin to 13-11 with 7:16 remaining in the half.
The Tribe looked poised to put more points on the board before the half, but Grimes couldn’t convert a fourth-and-1 run inside the Richmond 20 and it was 13-11 at the half.
The Tribe saw more points go by the wayside early in the second half as placekicker Drake Kuhn missed from 40 yards, yet another stumble in the kicking game that has plagued the College all season. The problems reared up again as Kuhn hit the upright with an extra point after Caprio scored from a yard out. The missed conversion left it a one score game at 19-11.
Richmond quickly answered with a 13-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that finished with a 6-yard run by fullback Kendall Gaskins to cut the margin to 19-17. The Spiders then went for the tie and Corp tried to target fellow senior Tre Gray for the conversion but the pass failed and the margin stayed at two.
The kicking woes for both teams continued as the Tribe blocked a 34-yard attempt in the fourth quarter, but a William & Mary played pulled a Leon Lett and touched the ball after the blocked kick had passed the line of scrimmage. This allowed the ball to remain live and Richmond recovered at the Tribe 12-yard line. Three plays later, Gaskins scored to make it 23-19, but another two-point conversion attempt failed.
Faced with a deficit and 4:35 on the clock, Caprio engineered arguably his best drive of the season, taking the Tribe down the field in 17 plays, going 5-7 for 53 yards on the march. Grimes had 31 yards on seven carries as well as the Tribe patiently moved the ball as the clock ran down. Still, the Tribe was running low on time as Caprio came to the line at the Richmond two-yard line. The signal-caller showed tremendous poise as he dropped back and hit Nolan Kearney with the game-winning touchdown pass. Not wanting to allow the Spiders to tie the game with a returned conversion attempt, Jimmye Laycock ordered a kneeldown and a 25-23 final was secured.
With the victory, the Tribe retained the Capital Cup for the second-consecutive season after the Spiders had won five straight in the series between 2005 and 2009. William & Mary’s lead in the all-time series now stands at 61-55-5.
Richmond senior Corp finished 22 of 31 passing for 196 yards and a touchdown, while fellow senior Gray led the way with 10 catches for 84 yards. Gray played his 50th game, capping his career as the Spiders’ all-time leader in catches (243) and yards (3,101) and also set the team’s single-season marks in both categories (95 and 1,187).
Junior LB Darius McMillan recorded a career-high 20 tackles and finished as the CAA’s second-leading tackler with a career-best 133 stops – good for eighth on Richmond’s single-season list.
Grimes -- the Tribes’ all-time leading rusher -- carried the ball 39 times for 205 yards and a touchdown and was named the 2011 Capital Cup MVP, while Caprio was 16 of 22 for 146 yards for two TD passing TDs and a rushing score.
Senior All-American Jonathan Grimes was honored as the game’s most valuable player after rushing for 205 yards on a school-record 39 carries with a touchdown. The impressive effort was his third consecutive 200-yard rushing performance and increased his single-season rushing total to a school-record 1,431 (breaking the previous record of 1,408 set by Robert Green in 1990). The Palmyra, N.J., native also set the program’s single-season record for kickoff return yards (817).
Caprio completed 16-of-22 passes for 146 yards with two touchdowns, while he also rushed for a score. Senior wide receiver D.J. Mangas came up big with a team-high seven catches for 73 yards and a touchdown.
W&M outgained Richmond by nearly 100 yards, (381-282) and held a significant advantage on the ground, 235-80.
Junior linebacker Jabrel Mines led the Tribe defensively with 11 tackles and a sack, while senior cornerback Terrell Wells finished with 10 stops.
NEWS AND NOTES
New Hampshire senior quarterback Kevin Decker was chosen as the 2011 CAA Football Offensive Player of the Year. The league’s Defensive Player of the Year honor was awarded to Old Dominion senior defensive lineman Ronnie Cameron. William and Mary senior kick returner Jonathan Grimes repeated as CAA Football Special Teams Player of the Year and Towson third-year head coach Rob Ambrose picked up the CAA Football Coach of the Year award. Towson freshman running back Terrance West and Villanova linebacker Dillon Lucas were the league’s Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year, respectively.
15. Old Dominion (16.29)
19. James Madison (20.29)
16. Central Arkansas
32. Tennessee Tech (30.00)
33. E Kentucky (30.29)
28T. Stony Brook (28.00)
37. Norfolk St (34.86)
53T. Albany (44.86)
Final Regular Season Top 25
1. Sam Houston State Bearkats
2. North Dakota State Bison
3. Georgia Southern Eagles
4. Towson Tigers
5. Montana Grizzlies
6. Northern Iowa Panthers
7. Montana State Bobcats
8. New Hampshire Wildcats
9. Lehigh Mountain Hawks
10. Appalachian State Mountaineers
11. Maine Black Bears
12. Old Dominion Monarchs
13. Wofford Terriers
14. Harvard Crimson
15. Central Arkansas Bears
16. James Madison Dukes
17. Delaware Blue Hens
18. Stony Brook Seawolves
19. Furman Paladins
20. Illinois State Redbirds
21. Albany Great Danes
22. Liberty Flames
23. Eastern Washington Eagles
24. North Dakota Fighting Sioux
25. Eastern Kentucky Colonels
THIS WEEK'S GAMES
James Madison at Eastern Kentucky
Most people are surprised that the Dukes are on the road for this game, but given that neither team was expected to be in the field heading into last weekend, it’s hard to complain. Both squads finished at 7-4 but the Colonels were co-champions of the Ohio Valley conference and that may have given them the edge over other similar bubble teams in the eyes of the selection committee.
Quarterback TJ Haley will lead the Colonels against the Dukes and he will rely on workhorse back Matt Denham to shoulder much of the load against the stout James Madison defense. Denham has carried the ball as many as 41 times in a game this season. The offense is built around the run, but Pryor can make plays with his legs as well as his arm. His best effort of the season was a five-touchdown performance against Jacksonville State when the Colonels put up 28 points in the fourth quarter for a monumental 52-48 comeback win that might have been the difference in making the playoffs.
James Madison will head across the border into Kentucky as a team that thinks it can do some damage. With Justin Thorpe back from suspension, the Dukes looked dominant against Rhode Island and Massachusetts to close out the season at 7-4. With narrow losses to Maine and Old Dominion with Jace Edwards at quarterback, this is a team that believes it can play with anyone at full strength. I think the Dukes can make a run in this bracket and think they will take the bus ride home as a happy bunch but it won’t be easy.
Dukes 31 Colonels 20
Norfolk State at Old Dominion
The Monarchs and Spartans are scheduled to start a head-to-head series but the FCS playoff committee decided to kick things off a little sooner. The crosstown rivals will meet in a game that sold out in a matter of days should feature the best atmosphere of the opening round.
Old Dominion will have a little chip on their shoulder as both the team and their fans thought a 9-2 record in the CAA should have merited a first-round bye and I expect they will come out flying especially after a week off to close the season.
The Spartans of Norfolk State are led by Chris Walley at quarterback and Randy Maynes at running back. It’s an unspectacular offense averaging less than 28 points a game in a suspect MEAC conference but they will bring their best game in front of many local fans.
Old Dominion will feature the usual mix of Taylor Heinicke throwing the ball and mixing in the running game. The Monarch defense will prove a physical matchup for the Spartans as well.
MEAC teams have shown they can play with the big boys in recent years as Hampton and South Carolina State have been competitive in opening games. However, they’ve still been unable to pull out any victories and I don’t see this Norfolk State team breaking through. Too much Heinicke and a fresh Monarchs squad will prove themselves worthy of a second-round spot in the playoffs.
Monarchs 38 Spartans 21