For all that went awry throughout this crucial early-season football outing, it was rather remarkable SUNY Cortland even had a chance to still make this Saturday afternoon memorable.
Despite losing starting senior quarterback Steven Ferreira to a serious first half ankle injury, despite the 15 flags that enabled referees walk off 124 penalty yards against the hosts and despite an opening half where St. John Fisher wide receivers were often found unaccompanied in the Red Dragons secondary, this Empire 8 Conference opener between the two defending co-champions was still up for grabs late in the fourth quarter inside Cortland’s Stadium Complex.
The Red Dragons’ recovery from an early 21-3 deficit was not snuffed out until sophomore cornerback Demarre Nelson halted the final two Cortland possessions with interceptions, giving St. John Fisher a 31-24 victory in this match-up of unbeaten nationally-ranked outfits.
With Cortland in need of a tying touchdown, Nelson latched onto a deflected third down pass with 2:44 left to play after the Red Dragons had driven to the Cardinals’ 12-yard line.
After Cortland got the ball back at midfield a mere 54 seconds from the finish, four plays picked up 16 yards before an errant pass was picked off again by Nelson to put the Cardinals’ victory on ice.
“It could have been easy to cash it in, and they didn’t. We never have. I think we’re fortunate we have kids, a culture here, where they’re warriors and they’re going to battle through,” was the consolation Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill could find after his squad fell to 2-1 overall.
“We just can’t lose games,” he added. “The thing is, hey, the winner of the conference had two conference losses last year and the co-champion had two conference losses. There’s nothing we can do about this one, but certainly we have to make certain we have a big effect on the next one.”
St. John Fisher, now 3-0 after having come into the game ranked 21st in Division III behind the 15th ranked Red Dragons, was elated to hold on after being out-gained 436-397 by a team using back-up quarterbacks Kyle Schneider and frisky freshman DeAngelo Walker.
“When you win in the E8 anywhere it’s big, especially on the road and at a place like this,” said smiling St. John Fisher coach Paul Vosburgh. “And Cortland’s one of the top teams in the country, so it’s a huge win.”
BEFORE A CROWD OF 3,589 — many on hand to watch the halftime C-Club Hall of Fame introductions — Cortland was unable to take advantage of the game’s first big break. When St. John Fisher misplayed a punt that Red Dragons linebacker Matt Goodman recovered at the visitor’s 11-yard-line, Cortland had to settle for a Shane Cronin field goal after being called for a holding penalty.
St. John Fisher went on to score the game’s next three touchdowns with the help of a costly Cortland fumbled kickoff return. Senior quarterback Matt Naton threw a 2-yard scoring pass to tight end Wyatt Stehle, while running backs James Chambers and Tony Fusco capped ensuing drives with short runs into the end zone.
Down 21-3 and conducting what would turn into a Cortland scoring drive, Ferreira went down while completing a sideline pass to Alex Smith to the Cardinals’ 3-yard-line just four minutes into the second quarter. St. John Fisher was flagged for roughing the passer with that low, late hit that could conclude Ferreira’s season.
Rookie Walker came on to sprint just inside the corner pylon for a 5-yard touchdown run two plays later, but while Cortland’s offense adjusted to losing Ferreira the Cardinals added a 35-yard field goal lined between the goal posts by Devin Dzikowicz for a 24-10 halftime lead.
“The injury to your quarterback is unnerving but that’s what you practice for, depth. And I thought our kids, depth-wise, came out and did a nice job,” said Coach MacNeill.
And nothing was nicer that the third play of the third quarter, when Schneider took a short drop, lofted a ball down the sideline and had speedy junior Smith snare the pass in stride en route to a 77-yard touchdown.
That was among 11 catches made by Smith on the day, worth 167 yards of valuable Stadium Complex real estate.
THE CARDINALS HIKED the lead to 31-17 by scoring with 22 seconds left in the third quarter, covering 57 yards in four plays. Two snaps after Dylan Harrington’s 25-yard sideline catch, Mike Collichio caught a slant pass from Naton and pierced the secondary for a 30-yard scoring play.
Naton, out of West Genesee in Camillus, completed 16-of-27 throws for 241 yards and no interceptions on the day and helped the visitors convert 7-of-11 third down snaps in the opening half.
But Cortland still came back, featuring the elusive runs of Walker — the frosh out of Kenmore West High School in Buffalo who ended up being Cortland’s leading rusher with 66 yards on 15 carries.
“That number 38, man, we couldn’t tackle him.. He was a different beast out there and changed what we were trying to do (defensively) a little bit,” said St. John Fisher’s Vosburgh.
“He’s a jitterbug. He’s very quick,” noted Coach MacNeill, who had elevated Walker to just behind Ferreira on the depth chart for the game. “There was a lot of pressure on him today, obviously, throwing him into the mix. But that’s what he wanted and I thought he did a pretty good job at times.”
And Schneider completed 17-of-27 throws for 213 yards in his SOS role, as the two quarterbacks alternated depending on the play call.
The two back-ups were both used in a 75-yard, 11-play drive that pulled Cortland within a touchdown with 7:33 left to play — Walker running for 26 yards on the march while Schneider completed a big fourth-down sideline pass to Smith.
Running back Alex Wasserman then broke off a 15-yard touchdown run off left tackle, and Cortland was a touchdown shy of pulling even.
FRESHMAN NOSE GUARD Ike Schannauer’s third sack of the game helped disrupt St John’s Fisher next drive, Cortland getting the ball back at the Cardinals 47. With Walker mostly using his legs, Cortland got to the 12 before a penalty, a run loss and an incomplete pass preceded the first Nelson interception.
Nelson’s second pick would follow in the final minute.
“We came up with the big plays when we needed,” said St. John Fisher’s Vosburgh. “At the end we needed the defense to step up and they ended up with two picks. Those are all critical plays. But there’s critical plays throughout the whole game. A game like this is never decided on one play.”
The penalties called against Cortland is what bothered MacNeill the most, something to be corrected before next Saturday’s 1 p.m. visit to unbeaten Utica College (3-0).
“We put ourselves in some bad situations in terms of being able to enjoy the moment,” said MacNeill. “The penalties.. I hate penalties. You just hate them, but the kids cause them and we have to look at it and we have to get that turned around.”