UTICA — When freshman quarterback DeAngelo Walker directed a 78-yard scoring drive midway through the opening quarter, everything seemed fine in the football world of SUNY Cortland.
Walker flipped a 15-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jake Smith in the corner of the end zone on the seventh snap of that lengthy offensive excursion and the Red Dragons had taken a 7-3 lead in Saturday’s Empire 8 Conference visit to Utica College.
But overcoming the loss of injured starting quarterback Steven Ferreira proved to be too big of an obstacle for Cortland, despite that early offensive success.
With Ferreira absent after breaking his ankle the previous weekend in a loss to St. John Fisher, unbeaten Utica feasted on five intercepted passes, benefited from 144 rushing yards from senior back Ryan Burnett and went on to knock off the Red Dragons 24-13 before 3,150 folks at sunny Gaetano Stadium.
Cortland threw for just 99 yards, was out-gained 392-255 and saw Utica have a 16-minute edge on time of possession. Those all had a hand in leaving the defending conference champions a winless 0-2 in Empire 8 play and 2-2 overall.
The only other points mustered by Cortland in the contest came from the overworked defense, as cornerback Mark DelPrete pilfered a Pioneers pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown to pull the visitors within 18-13 with 4:57 left in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Utica added the final two of four field goals kicked by Desmond Akpanoko to pull away. His 31-yarder with 3:10 left to play pretty much did in the Dragons.
Utica is among the Empire 8 leaders with a 2-0 conference record, and stands a perfect 4-0 overall.
Quarterback Teddy VanGalen directed the Pioneers’ offense, completing 15-of-30 passes for 240 yards. Six of those tosses were caught by Jerred Beniquez for 70 yards.
Dehstin Smart came up with two of Utica’s five interceptions, while Juwan Wilson and Anthony Beaubrun each made 10 tackles.
Cortland’s early lead did not last long, as Utica went ahead 9-7 in the second quarter on a Lindell Reed 1-yard TD run — though the Pioneers missed the extra point.
Later in the quarter, Akpanoko made a 24-yard field goal and the Pioneers led 12-7 at intermission. That score was set up by a Smart interception that bounced off a couple of players — and a teammate’s helmet — before settling into his arms.
The hosts extended their lead to 18-7 on a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive on their opening possession of the second half. Burnett finished things off with a 5-yard TD run, and a two-point conversion pass attempt failed.
Cortland drove to the Utica 3-yard line on its next possession, but was stopped short on a 4th-and-1 rush. Two plays later, however, DelPrete came up with his TD interception return. Cortland’s two-point attempt failed.
After Utica pushed its lead to eight on a 20-yard Akpanoko field goal three plays into the fourth quarter, Cortland drove to the Utica 23-yard line on its next possession. A bid to get within 18-16 failed when Kyle Coache blocked a 40-yard field goal attempt.
The Pioneers then took more than six minutes off the clock with a 12-play, 64-yard drive, and Akpanoko’s 31-yard field goal made it 24-13 with 3:10 left. Cortland’s final two possessions ended on interceptions by Smart and Anthony Bierria-Anderson in Red Dragon territory.
Walker completed 10-of-18 passes for 86 yards, and also ran for 66 yards on 15 carries. He was picked off three times, with back-up quarterbacks Kyle Schneider and Ryan VanGalen also victims of Utica interceptions. Sophomore VanGalen is the younger brother of the Utica starting QB.
On defense for Cortland, defensive end Tom Hagan was in on a team-high 10 tackles — 3.5 for losses — and safety Carson Lassiter recorded eight tackles.Cortland will travel to Hartwick College this coming Saturday for a 2 p.m. league contest in Oneonta.