By NEIL GEOGHEGAN
KUTZTOWN – Up and down football performances happen every single weekend, but rarely do you see the dichotomy of emotions that the West Chester football squad experienced Saturday in Kutztown.
Notching the program’s most impactful triumph in at least three seasons, WCU signaled its return to PSAC East title contention by blasting the Golden Bears, 45-24. But the Golden Rams walked off University Field with a huge victory in their pockets and an even bigger sense of relief in their hearts after teammate Eric Edwers went down with what initially appeared to be a serious neck injury.
Moments after batting down a third quarter pass attempt, the junior defensive end lay motionless on the turf. Paramedics loaded the junior defensive end onto a stretcher and he was transported to a local hospital -- but not before giving his worries teammates the thumbs up.
“I think he’s OK,” reported head coach Bill Zwaan. “But as a precaution, they had to take him to the hospital, and they didn’t want him to move until they took x-rays.
“Eric was conscious the whole time and had total movement and feeling everywhere.”
Incredibly, the resilient Rams proceeded to outscore the reigning PSAC champs 21-10 the rest of the way to improve to 2-0 in the division (3-1 overall), and certainly have the look of a squad capable of making a run at WCU’s first Eastern Division crown since 2008.
“Eric is a brother to us and once we lost a family member, we knew we had to step it up a notch,” said junior runner Rondell White, who scored three rushing touchdowns.
“I don’t know if there were people out there who didn’t think we are contenders, but after this game they should believe that we are capable of winning any game we play,” added senior quarterback Mike Mattei.
In addition to the injury, the Rams were faced with a variety of challenges, including yet another special team’s blunder to start the second half. But the squad overcame it all, rolling up 403 yards of offense in the process and winning the turnover battle 3-0.
“This is a different team mentally than we’ve had in the last couple years,” Zwaan acknowledged. “They feel like they are going to handle whatever problems come along and they have a lot of confidence. We were shaken by what happened to Eric, but we kept fighting. And everybody is frustrated by the kickoff return, but we went right back out and scored.
“We are getting a lot of contributions from a lot of guys right now.”
Down by 10 at the half, the Bears (0-2, 1-3) got back into contention in a hurry when Curtis Wortham returned the second half kickoff 99-yards. Amazingly, it was the second straight game in which WCU surrendered a touchdown to start the third period.
But unlike two years ago at University Field – when Kutztown scored the final 35 points to overcome a halftime deficit -- the Rams responded positively, forcing a quick punt and then scoring on a 38-yard strike from Mattei to Adam Dempsey to convert a third-and-16.
The glow didn’t last long, however, as Edwers went down on the ensuing possession. But just two plays after watching their teammate carted off the field, the WCU defense forced the play of the game when quarterback-turned-linebacker Matt Carroll forced a KU fumble, and freshman tackle Andrew Cohen scooped it up and rambled into the end zone.
“We think we have something special brewing on defense,” said tackle Andrew McCloskey, who had 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack.
“If you take that the return, and their last touchdown against the second team, our defense played tremendous,” Zwaan added. “They were flying around and causing all kinds of problems.”
The Rams then closed it out with a methodical, time-consuming 73-yard march early in the fourth quarter, culminating with the final scoring run by White, who finished with 78 tough yards on 29 attempts.
“The scoreboard reflects how we practiced this week,” White said. “We are trying to get a PSAC East title. This is a big road victory, especially after last year when (Kutztown) came to our place and shut us out (24-0).”
Defensively, West Chester limited the explosive Bears to less than five yards per play despite a shaky start. Wortham gained 57 of his 90 yards in the ground in Kutztown’s first series, which put WCU in a 7-0 hole.
But the defense made adjustments and the offense bounced back nicely on the next three series, beginning with an 80-yard drive, with emerging wideout Jim Kelly wrapped it up with a 29-yard toss from Mattei. West Chester inched ahead on a 48-yard Shawn Leo field goal, and then linebacker Ronnell Williams grabbed a key interception with KU threatening.
The Rams parlayed the turnover into another White TD, but it was Mattei who delivered a pair of third-and-long conversions with passes to Kelly and Erick Brundidge. He finished the day 19 of 26 for 318 yards, two TDs and no interceptions.
“Kutztown didn’t have their QB (Kevin Morton), but we were playing our second guy too, and he did a pretty darn good job,” Zwaan said of Mattei, who replaced injured starter Sean McCartney in the season opener. “After the first series, he did exactly what we needed him to do.”
In his last two outings, Mattei completed 76 percent of his passes for 676 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
“I know I can make all the throws and I’ve been running the offense for five years,” Mattei said. “The coaches are putting me in a position to succeed, the o-line keeps playing well and the receivers keep catching, so that makes it easy.”
West Chester travels to PSAC West favorite California (Pa.) next weekend before a third straight road game at division foe East Stroudsburg.
“Unlike last week against Millersville (a 56-14 victory), this is a win we can gauge,” Zwaan said. “Our kids were ready to play this game, we made some big plays on both sides of the ball.”
WCU 45, Kutztown 24
West Chester 7 10 14 14 -- 45
Kutztown 7 0 10 7 -- 24
K-Wortham 11 run (Ruggieri kick)
WC-Kelly 29 pass from Mattei (Leo kick)
WC-FG Leo 48
WC-White 1 run (Leo kick)
K-Wortham 98 kickoff return (Ruggieri kick)
WC-Dempsey 38 pass from Mattei (Leo kick)
WC-Cohen 4 fumble return (Leo kick)
K-FG Ruggieri 41
WC-White 4 run (Leo kick)
WC-White 8 run (Leo kick)
K-Reed 25 pass from Luckenbaugh (Ruggieri kick)
First downs 20 21
Yards rushing 85 68
Yards passing 318 306
Total yards 403 374
Passing 19-26-0 36-53-2
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties 9-62 7-73
Punts-Avg. 3-26.7 3-42.0
RUSHING - WCU: White 29-82, 3 TDs; Monk 4-18; Carroll 1-(-1); Team 1-(-2); Mattei 1-(-4); Elliott 1-(-4). Kutz: Wortham 20-95, TD; Fehr 1-1; Luckenbaugh 3-(-23).
PASSING - WCU: Mattei 19-26-0, 318 yds., 2 TDs. Kutz: Luckenbaugh 36-53-2, 306 yds., TD.
RECEIVING - WCU: Lee 6-70; Kelly 5-100, TD; White 3-30; Brundidge 2-62; Dempsey 2-49, TD; Beahan 1-7. Kutz: Smith 12-86; Snyder 5-35; Tuell 4-39; Wortham 4-33; Fox 4-32; Kelly 2-14; Pirolli 1-25; Reed 1-25, TD; Michalak 1-6; Sterling 1-6; Garneau 1-5.
SACKS - WCU: Williams, Carroll, McCloskey. Kutz: Greenwald.
INTERCEPTIONS - WCU: Williams, Shabazz. Kutz: none.