By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
While national security was not at stake last weekend, the CAA defenses that came under attack were not the victims of surprise attacks. Each opponent used conventional and expected tactics, but four of the five teams that competed were unable to adjust and hold off the other side.
Regular readers of the CAA will have noticed that I haven't discusses defense this year. Mainly, it's because people focus on the offensive side of the ball in football where the skill players put up the gaudy stats. However, it was more a product of the fact that the conference really wasn't playing much.
It was evident from the opening week when teams like UNH, Delaware, JMU and W&M were routed by FBS teams in games where those teams would usually be competitive.
It continued through the season as the offenses dominated games but in unconventional fashion for the CAA. For years, we've seen quick-strike passing offenses put up impressive numbers in the league, but this year we saw an incredible number of long, time-consuming drives featuring strong running games. What this showed was that the defenses in the CAA were struggling to stop much of anything defensively.
There's an adage in sports that the postseason will expose any weaknesses a team has and last week was no different.
ROUND 2 PLAYOFF GAMES
New Hampshire at Montana State
I noted in last week's preview that New Hampshire needed to create some turnovers in order to pull off the upset in Bozeman. Lo and behold, the Wildcats did just that, intercepting the Bobcats star quarterback Denarius McGhee on Montana State's first two possessions. When Matt Evans returned the second pick 58 yards for a touchdown, the visitors had a surprising 10-0 lead near the end of the first quarter.
However, McGhee then went to work and led two scoring drives, first a 41-yard field goal from Jason Cunningham and then an 11-yard touchdown pass to Tray Robinson. However, the Wildcats were opportunistic again, as they blocked the extra point and Anthony Gorrell took it the length of the field for a 12-9 lead.
After getting the ball, New Hampshire was stopped, but Mike MacArthur's punt was fumbled and recovered by the Wildcats at the Montana State 18. It took Kevin Decker one play to hit Justin Mello for an 18 yard touchdown and a 19-9 lead. Unfortunately, it was mainly Bobcats from there starting with the ensuing kickoff that went out of bounds. After one completion, Montana State went the last 38 yards on the ground with McGhee finishing things off from two yards out, cutting the lead to 19-16 with 25 second left in the half.
The Bobcats picked up where they left off after taking the second half kickoff. Outside of one five-yard completion, they went the other 75 yards on the ground, with McGhee fashioning an electric 37-yard scamper for a 23-19 lead. The Wildcats stopped the next MSU drive with another interception at the UNH 25 but the offense could not get anything going and a 12-play 70 yard drive ended with another Cunningham field goal, this time from 26 yards for a 26-19 lead.
Nico Steriti gave the Wildcats good field position on the ensuing drive, but the offense went backward and was forced to punt but the defense got a stop and Decker had the ball again with four minutes left. The senior led a drive to a first down at the MSU 19 but a play later he was intercepted at the Bobcat 3-yard line by Darius Jones. The game looked to be done, but when Bobcats punter Rory Perez shanked a punt 22 yards, New Hampshire still had a chance. Decker was more than happy to take it, hitting Justin Mello for a 29-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left that stunned the home crowd. All that stood between the two teams and overtime was the extra point. However, in equally stunning fashion, MacArthur missed the kick and the Wildcats were heading home with a heartbreaking 26-25 loss.
It was ultimately an excruciating way to lose, but considering they won the turnover battle 4-1, returned a pick for a touchdown, a conversion for two more points and scored two other touchdowns after a fumbled punt and a shanked punt, it was pretty clear that New Hampshire had been outplayed. Montana State was a better team but it was a tribute to coach McDonnell and his senior leadership that the team kept battling and trying to pull out a win. McDonnell will do some wondering about whether he should have gone for two and the win on the road, but if he can find yet another quarterback, we'll expect to see New Hampshire in the playoffs again next year.
James Madison at North Dakota State
There were no secrets coming into this game. I expected NDSU to throw the ball about twenty times and run it another thirty as they tried to be more physical than the toughest team the CAA had to offer. JMU was expected to do much the same and try to pull off another road win.
On the first drive, it seemed to work pretty well for the Dukes as six runs and three passes took the ball to the Bison 33. However, when quarterback Justin Thorpe's pass on 4th and 5 fell incomplete, JMU came up empty. Both teams stayed scoreless until North Dakota State took the ball to start the second quarter and went 80 yards in ten plays behind three throws from Brock Jensen and seven runs from DJ McNorton and Sam Ojuri, who finally punched it in from the 1 for a 7-0 lead.
The Dukes responded two possessions later with a 10-play 80-yard drive of their own before Thorpe hit Smith for a 20-yard touchdown pass and a 7-7 tie. It looked to stay that way heading to halftime until a botched Dukes kickoff gave the Bison good field position and they moved into range for Ryan Jastram to hammer home a kick from 53 yards for a 10-7 North Dakota State lead at the break.
The teams traded punts coming out of the break before the Bison put together a drive that put their stamp on the game. It covered only 61 yards, but 53 of those were on the ground as McNorton had 4 rushes for 26 yards and Ojuri had 4 rushes for 27 yards, including the last six to paydirt. The extra point was blocked and almost returned for two points the other way, but the score was 16-7 with 5 minutes left in the third.
The Dukes tried to answer back and a promising drive moved into Bison territory behind runs from Thorpe and Dae'Quan Scott. However, on the 8th run of the 10 play drive, Thorpe was stopped for a loss on 4th and 2 and James Madison turned it over on downs for the second time. Almost more important were the five minutes that ran off the clock.
The clock would keep rolling as the Bison used 11 plays to get get Jastram into field goal range again and he delivered from 43 yards with nine and a half minutes left and a 19-7 lead.
Just when the Dukes seemed about done, they came alive, moving 73 yards on two completions from Thorpe sandwiched around three runs from Scott. Thorpe's second pass went to Long and resulted in a 35 yard touchdown pass that quickly cut the lead to 19-14 and gave the visitors some hope with more than seven minutes on the clock.
Unfortunately, the momentum was short-lived as Starke knocked another kick out-of-bounds and McNorton took the handoff on the next play and dashed 60 yards for a back-breaking touchdown and a 26-14 lead.
The Dukes last two possessions ended on downs and with an interception on the game's final play. In the end, North Dakota State was the more balanced and efficient team and James Madison was undone by mistakes on special teams, most notably the poor kickoffs, and the inability to convert on the handful of big play opportunities in Bison territory. The Dukes defense, usually the reliable facet of the team, really fell short allowing the McNorton touchdown run right after the offense got the team back in the game. The stats were relatively even but the home team played like the 10-1 squad formerly ranked #1 in the country and the visitors made the kind of mistakes that cost you.
Maine at Appalachian State
Speaking of mistakes, the Maine Black Bears headed to Boone having lost two of their last three games with some uncharacteristic mistakes from their quarterback and some sloppy play on defense. Coach Jack Cosgrove hoped that his team had refocused during the bye week and was ready fro another businesslike road trip from Orono to North Carolina but even he couldn't have expected the performance that his veteran team came up with at the Rock.
Maine could not have gotten a better start as a quick three and out on defense was followed by a touchdown on the fourth offensive play as senior quarterback Warren Smith hit Damarr Aultman for a 44-yard thunderbolt that shocked the home crowd.
Another quick stop was followed by a 79-yard drive that met an untimely end as Brian Harvey's 20-yard field goal attempt was blocked. However, the defense came to play and didn't let the turn of events swing the momentum as they forced a three-and-out again. More disappointment ensued as Smith was picked off on third-and-three from the Mountaineer 33 and two possessions later the home team got on the board hit Andrew Peacock for a 20-yard touchdown pass. However, the Bears blocked yet another kick and the score stayed 7-6, as close as the Mountaineers would be for the rest of the day.
The seniors quickly took control back as Smith and running back Pushaun Brown led an 80 yard drive which ended with Smith hitting Aultman for another big play, this time scoring from 35 yards. When Harvey's extra point was blocked, the score stayed 13-6 and would remain that way heading to halftime.
After trading punts to start the half, the Maine offense went back to work and went 58 yards, the last 21 coming from a Smith to John Ebelling connection, the quarterback's third scoring strike of the day. A lot of the air seemed to go out of the building at that point and it was evident on the field as the Mountaineers picked up a personal foul penalty. Maine pounced on the opportunity and forced another quick three-and-out from the struggling Appalachian State offense. One play later, running back David Hood busted loose and went 54 yards for a 27-6 lead and Maine rolling.
The Mountaineers had one last surge in them, scoring a touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter to cut the lead to two scores and then forcing a Black Bear punt. However, just as the home crowd was getting back into things, the Maine defense came up with an interception and five plays later Brown went 31 yards for a 34-12 lead and a ticket to the quarterfinals.
This was a dominant performance on both sides of the ball for Maine, but the effort from the defense was especially impressive and they closed out the game by forcing two more turnovers as the clock wound down. The 466-275 advantage in total yardage was quite a feat on the road, but the 216-3 edge in rushing yards was indicative of how the visitors were able to control the game. It was the only solid effort by a CAA team on the day and hopefully they have more plays up their sleeve against the offensive juggernaut in Stateboro this weekend.
Old Dominion at Georgia Southern
As I mentioned in the preview of this game last week, I didn't think the Monarchs could stop the Eagles, so they would have to try to win in a shootout. Well, it certainly played out that way, but I wasn't expecting a basketball score from the playoff game in Stateboro, GA.
Old Dominion actually punted on their first possession but it was off to the races after that. Georgia Southern went 68 yards for a score and the Monarchs went 80. The Eagles fumbled on the next possession but Old Dominion couldn't take advantage and had to punt.
After that, the Eagles went 66 yards and the Monarchs went 76. 14-14. Then Georgia Southern went 72 before Old Dominion went 68, the last 44 coming on a strike from Heinicke to Prentice Gill. The upstarts from Norfolk were here to play. 21-21.
One more time, the Eagles went 70 and the Monarchs responded again going 81. This time Heinicke hit Antonio Vaughan from 47 with 35 seconds left to stun the home crowd. 28-28. Only halftime could put a stop to the scoring.
Nothing changed after the break as freshman fullback Dominique Swope went 76 yards on the first play from scrimmage. Unfazed, the Monarchs came back 74 yards with Heinicke finishing things again, this time to Larry Pinkard. 35-35.
14 plays (13 runs) and 76 yards later it was touchdown Eagles again, but when the extra point was blocked it looked like their might be an opening for the Monarchs.
The next few minutes were the decisive moments of the game. First, Heinicke's pass on 4th-and-one from the Georgia Southern 40 was incomplete and ODU turned it over on downs. The Eagles looked to drive for a two-score lead but the Monarch defense finally stepped up and forced a fumble at the 11. Heinicke had the team moving again before Nick Mayers fumbled after a catch inside Georgia Southern territory. The fumble was returned to the Monarch 32 and six plays and a two-point conversion later it was 49-35 in favor of the Eagles.
From there, Old Dominion was chasing the game as they say, but they would not go quietly, as Heinicke threw his fifth touchdown pass of the game, this one to Prentice Gill from 19 yards. Coach Bobby Wilder knew his defense was pretty much helpless at this point and called for an onsides kick with six minutes left. Unfortunately, the Eagles recovered and quickly moved towards another score. There was a brief moment of hope when Swope fumbled at the goal line, but Nico Hickey recovered the ball in the end zone for a 55-41 lead.
Heinicke had one last gasp drive in him, finishing it off with a 20-yard scramble for another score. But when the onside kick was unsuccessful, the Monarchs were still a score short at 55-48.
It was a remarkable effort from a team in its first year of playoff eligibility to go on the road and take the marquee program in FCS to the absolute limit before falling. Heinicke threw for five touchdowns for the second straight playoff game and served notice that he might be the best quarterback in the conference next year as only a sophomore. In the end, though, coach Wilder will need to find a way to improve a defense that had trouble getting stops in big spots this year. The blown lead at the end of the Towson game ultimately cost them the league title and they just couldn't figure out a way to slow down the triple-option in this game as the Eagles rolled up 607 yards, including 477 on the ground.
All in all, though, a 10-3 record and great memories from a playoff run in their first year of eligibility has to excite everyone involved with the Monarch program. There are certainly more good things to come.
Lehigh at Towson
I had this as the Game of the Week and it certainly didn't disappoint. It was a matchup more befitting a quarterfinal but the former Patriot League foes went toe-to-toe offensively all night before a surprising turn of events decided the game.
The game got off to an odd start as Towson took the kickoff and quickly faced 4th-and-two at their own 40. Coach Rob Ambrose gambled early by going for it but Tyler Wharton was stopped short. Payton Award finalist Chris Lum quickly moved Lehigh deep into Tiger territory before settling for a 22-yard field goal from Tim Divers. DJ Soven evened things for Towson from 45 before Lum went back to work.
The senior signal-caller completed five passes as the Mountain Hawks went 68 yards, helped along the way by a Towson personal foul penalty, before Ryan Spadola caught Lum's final pass for a six-yard score and a 10-7 lead.
The Towson offense continued to scuffle and Lehigh looked to build on the lead, but the Tiger defense stiffened and stopped Matt Fitz for no gain on third and fourth downs from the Towson 48. The offense took the momentum and went 52 in 10 plays with Terrance West getting his first playoff touchdown from 11 yards out.
Lehigh made a huge mistake on the kickoff, downing the ball at the one, but Lum calmly led the team down the field and the coaches went with some trickeration as Fitz threw to Jamel Haggins for a 23-yard score. However, Towson answered with a 13 play march and Enders hit Leon Kinnard for a 3-yard score and a 17-17 tie that held up until halftime.
The game seemed to swing in Towson's favor after the break as Lehigh fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and nine plays later West scored again, this time from a yard away, and the Tigers had a 24-17 lead. However, Payton Awards finalists are there for a reason and Lum completed six passes on a methodical march that ended with a Fitz touchdown run of six yards. 24-24.
The teams traded punts before Enders made a huge play, hitting Leon Kinnard for a 68 yard completion before running the last 5 yards for a 31-24 lead as the 3rd quarter neared a close. The Tigers hoped to take control but in what was a theme for CAA kickers all day, Soven knocked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds.
Lum quickly took advantage and the game was knotted at 31 apiece six plays later as Fitz scored again, this time from one yard out. Undeterred, the big play Towson offense struck again with Enders hitting Gerard Sheppard for a 52-yard touchdown and a 38-31 lead.
Unfortunately, the weakness of this Towson team has been the ability to make plays on defense. Handed another lead, the defense failed to get a stop again as the Mountain Hawks went 72 yards for a 38-38 tie as Lum did it himself for the last yard.
The defense finally came up with a stop after the Tigers fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Enders and the offense got the ball back at their own 8 with 6 minutes left and a tie game. Two plays later, in a fateful turn of events, Enders dropped back to pass but was hit at the goalline before he could get rid of the ball. The officials conferred for a moment before ruling a safety. In a stunning turn of events, a shootout had been turned on its head by a safety and Lehigh had a 40-38 lead.
After taking the free kick, Lum went to work and the Mountain Hawks converted a couple of third downs and moved into Towson territory. The Tiger defense stiffened to force a 4th-and-three from the 24 and Lehigh called timeout with 44 seconds left. Rather than kicking a field goal, Lehigh went for the win and Lum hit Zachary Hayden for a first down that iced the game.
It was a disappointing end for the turnaround Tigers, but the offense had been the driving force behind this team all year and when the defense needed to either hold a lead or get the ball back, they were unable to do it. As I said at the beginning, weaknesses are exposed in the playoffs, and Towson was no different than the other CAA losers this past weekend.
So, we're down to Maine. Can the Black Bears go down to Georgia and keep their surprising season going?
* * *
Enjoy the games this weekend and always feel free to offer thoughts, advice, criticism and scouting reports at firstname.lastname@example.org.