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Empire 8 Football: Dragons need win badly at Hartwick

Coming off back-to-back Empire 8 Conference losses, all SUNY Cortland is looking for at this juncture of the football season is a victory.

Sure those two setbacks came to St. John Fisher and Utica College opponents who are both currently undefeated, but that doesn’t take the sting away for a Red Dragons squad that opened the season 2-0, was nationally-ranked and was intent on repeating as conference champions.

“You don’t change who you are,” insists head coach Dan MacNeill of his suddenly struggling Red Dragons, as Cortland (2-2) looks to get back on the winning track traveling to Oneonta Saturday afternoon to face Hartwick College. Kickoff at Wright Stadium is 2 p.m. in the conference contest.

Still, MacNeill hopes the Red Dragons’ defense can step up against a high-scoring opponent, hopes freshman quarterback DeAngelo Walker gets more comfortable in his role running the offense after taking over when senior Steven Ferreira broke an ankle in the St. John Fisher loss.

“We just need to win. That’s all we really control,” says MacNeill, who knows with parity prevalent throughout the Empire 8 anything can still happen.

“I have no idea how this thing is going to turn out. There are a lot of good football teams out there,” said MacNeill. “You see that Brockport is leading Fisher 28-7 or something at halftime, and they lose the game. It’s a good league and a lot of different things will happen.

“Who will be champion? Well, there’s a lot of games left to play,” he adds. “If you start looking at it that way (as a must-win game) you start panicking, and I think to a certain degree we’ve got to watch and be very vigilant that we don’t get lost in ‘what if?’ Control what you can control, and that is the mission ahead for us, playing better against a worthy opponent, again, on the road.”

Hartwick is that latest worthy opponent on the Cortland schedule.

Though off to a 1-2 start including a 35-31 loss to Brockport in its lone Empire 8 Conference contest, Hartwick’s won-loss numbers are a bit misleading.

“We could be 3-0, and we could be 0-3. The fact is we’re 1-2 and they’ve all been very close games,” says Hartwick head coach Mark Carr, whose team is coming off a bye week after being out-scored by Brockport. “The reality for us is we can get better in all three phases, and there is just so much parity in this league.”

And don’t think the Hawks don’t remember last year’s 48-45 overtime loss in Cortland, which made the program 0-11 lifetime against the Red Dragons. “You’re trying to focus on what’s happening this year, but you can’t help but remember what happened,” said Coach Carr.

HIGH-FLYING HAWKS: Hartwick can score points. Lots of points. Like in 114 in three games, which is an eye-opening 38-point per game average.

Billy Pine is a dangerous double-threat quarterback who enables the Hawks to soar, the senior out of Hoosick Falls currently ranked seventh nationally among Division III passers averaging 352 yards per contest.

“He’s got the ability to run it and throw it, which is a little different than the last few quarterbacks we’ve had here,” said Coach Carr, who was Hartwick’s offensive coordinator before taking the top job 15 seasons ago. “But we have to be a lot more balanced.”

Senior running back Tito Pichardo heads up the ground game that looks to aid the balancing act, having scored seven touchdowns while rushing for 320 yards. Pine’s top receivers are juniors Brad Garcia and Koree Reed — Garcia with seven touchdowns and 26 catches for 487 yards while Reed has two touchdowns on 11 catches covering 431 yards.

“I don’t think they’ve played a defense like ours, but we’re going to find out,” said Cortland’s MacNeill of the potency of these Hawks.

MacNeill credits Coach Carr for making the Hawks dangerous.

“This is a guy who knows how to throw the ball. There’s a beautiful simplicity to it, but you’ve got to hand it to him,” says MacNeill of his counterpart. “He had a very seasoned quarterback a year ago (in John Garcia), and certainly this quarterback is new and he’s doing the same thing, running the same offensive scheme. You’ve got to admire what he’s doing there, putting up points and doing things in the manner that they are.”

ANOTHER SHOOT-OUT?: Hartwick is used to high-scoring affairs, like last year’s loss in Cortland and all three games this season. Still, Coach Carr feels his defense is more capable than has been on display.

“It’s a talented group and I think we’re really coming into our own defensively. The reality is just a couple of plays here or a couple of plays there. If we can stay focused for an entire game, I think we’re going to be fine,” Carr says.

Senior defensive back Malik Wynter out of Auburn has made 21 solo tackles, and shares the team lead in overall tackles with senior linebacker Mathew Ali at 23 apiece.

The Red Dragons’ offense will have to step up, after scoring just a lone touchdown at Utica last week. Walker threw for just 86 yards completing 10-of-18 passes, and Cortland quarterbacks were picked off five times.

“We’re still going to throw,” says Coach MacNeill, as junior Jake Smith has been the team’s top receiver with 18 catches good for 251 yards and three touchdowns.

PICK SIX HISTORY: Senior cornerback Mark DelPrete scored Cortland’s second touchdown last week at Utica on an interception return. It was the second career “pick-six” for the dependable senior out of Monsignor Farrell on Staten Island.

The last two Red Dragons to have two career TD interception returns were Pete Furey (in 2011 and ‘12) and Joe Lopez (in 2008 and ‘10). Chuck Eich had three defensive touchdown returns in 2003 season alone, though one came after taking a lateral after a teammate picked off a pass.

HAWKS LIKE FORMER TROJAN: Though former versatile Homer Central gridder Dylan Williams-Bachman is currently on the junior varsity squad at Hartwick, Coach Carr raves about the 5-foot-11, 210-pound freshman linebacker.

“I love him. He’s a great kid and he’s going to be a heck of a football player,” was the Coach Carr review. “ He’s smart, a high-charger, and he’s tough and athletic.”

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