November 26, 2021

Empire 8 Football: Dragons tackle new nemesis

If SUNY Cortland has found a true nemesis in recent football seasons, that would be Buffalo State.

The Red Dragons have dropped their last four contests to the Bengals and will be eager to end that troubling trend on Saturday afternoon when the two Empire 8 Conference squads collide at 1 p.m. at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex.

The two schools have been playing every autumn since 1984, and Cortland has a 19-13 advantage in the overall series despite this current drought that included 29-21 and 51-48 overtime losses at Buffalo State in the last two match-ups.

Both teams need a victory in order to pose a threat to the top half of the Empire 8 standings. Or as Buffalo State head coach Jerry Boyes puts it: “Both of our backs are up against the wall.”

Cortland (3-2 overall) had lost conference contests to Utica and St. John Fisher before staging a memorable second half rally to prevail 50-47 at Hartwick College in Oneonta last Saturday.

Buffalo State (2-2 overall) is off to an 0-2 start in the conference, with both losses to unbeaten 5-0 foes. The Bengals fell 34-10 to Alfred and 28-24 last Saturday at St. John Fisher on a fourth quarter touchdown.

The fact that two friends for over 30-plus years since their days as cohorts on the Ithaca College coaching staff are going up against each other is a mere side attraction to this main event — as Buffalo State’s Boyes was the best man at Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill’s wedding.

“When you’re going against a friend, I don’t know if you want to beat him any more than any other opponent but it adds to the flavor,” said Buffalo State’s Boyce, who also serves as the school’s athletic director. “The teams, heck they don’t mind any of that. I don’t talk about it and I’m sure Dan doesn’t talk about it. Still, you’d like to beat a friend.”

Coach MacNeill simply ignores Cortland’s recent inability to tame the Bengals.

“That’s yesterday. There’s not a darn thing you can do about that,” he says. “If you focus on yesterday you’re not going to get much done today, so we’re all about getting after what’s in front of us.”

That would be another dangerous Empire 8 opponent, who if not for a missed fourth down conversion opportunity against St. John Fisher could be 3-1 and riding high.

“I think we’ve seen some growth, but at the end of the day any evaluation in our business is based on Ws and Ls,” said Boyes of his team.

LESSONS LEARNED: Cortland hopes to continue the momentum gained from last week’s second half comeback at Hartwick, battling back from a 30-14 halftime deficit to win on Shane Cronin’s 34-yard field goal booted 26 seconds from the finish.

“There’s a huge lesson in that second half,” says Coach MacNeill.
“Everyone goes, ‘Oh man, all the adjustments you made.’ There really wasn’t,” he added. “The attitude adjustment was bigger than anything else, and it was that coming together that hopefully is a new foundation to build off.”

Having won the turnover battle for the first time in conference play also contributed to the victory, helping the Red Dragons overcome 29 missed tackles on defense — the biggest number MacNeill has had in his 20 seasons as head coach.

Having freshman quarterback DeAngelo Walker (two touchdown passes) and sophomore running back Donny Davis (two touchdown runs) step up was encouraging, too. Davis now finds himself back in the starting line-up after early season fumble woes had placed him on the sidelines.

Coach MacNeill liked other thing he saw against Hartwick, like wide receiver Jon Mannix and offensive guard Sean Gallagher gritting things out despite being banged up. He liked the unselfish Mannix’s, after a screen pass to him was called, offering to switch spots with a teammate. Mannix felt he was the better blocker and would make the play more successful – which proved to be correct.

The coach liked sophomore receiver Carlton Akiyor making five catches against Hartwick while ignoring having his fingernail completely torn off during the contest.

And he likes the way practice has progressed. “Each day of practice this week… it has been the best practice week in a long time in terms of consistency. So good for our guys,” MacNeill says.

HOPPY DAYS: Buffalo State was glad to get starting quarterback Kyle Hoppy back after suffering a fractured jaw in a 29-26 season-opening win over Otterbein. The junior out of Orchard Park showed a little game rust throwing three picks in the loss to St. John Fisher, but is a dangerous threat threat running the option who has also passed for 489.

“What was nice was, previous to last week, he was able to practice so it wasn’t like he missed three weeks of practice,” noted Coach Boyes, as Hoppy only had to avoid contact during workouts. “That was really big to be able to bring him in and practice.”

Running back Dale Stewart has rushed for 423 yards and seven touchdowns for an offense that has been directed by senior quarterback Aaron Ertel in recent games.

Buffalo State rallied past Cortland last year behind an 84-yard Stewart touchdown run and short Ertel touchdown pass, erasing Cortland’s 12-point halftime lead.

DRAGON HONORS: Kicker Cronin and quarterback Walker reaped honors after beating Hartwick. Cronin was chosen both the Empire 8 and the ECAC Division III North Special Teams Player of the Week, while Walker was tabbed as the ECAC Division III North Rookie of the Week.

Cronin made the game-winning field goal and also connected earlier in the fourth quarter, and was 4-for-4 on extra point attempts. In addition, Cronin averaged 42.8 yards per punt on four attempts.

Walker completed 19-of-30 passes for 315 yards and ran 11 times for 77 yards. He threw touchdown passes of 63 and 74 yards to wide receiver Jake Smith — the latter to tie the game at 47-47 with 3:12 remaining. His 23-yard run on 3rd-and-5 at the Hartwick 39-yard line set up Cronin’s winning field goal.