By NEIL GEOGHEGAN
CALIFORNIA, Pa. – They should be expecting an inquiry from Rand McNally or Google Earth down in south campus.
The West Chester football squad officially put itself on the map with one of the biggest road wins of head coach Bill Zwaan’s 10-year reign. Saddled with back-to-back losing seasons in 2010-11, the unranked Golden Rams signaled the program’s return to national relevance by making the biggest statement a PSAC team can possibly make these days by edging sixth-ranked California (Pa.) on Saturday in crossover action at Adamson Stadium in crossover action.
“On the road, at Cal – there is no question, this was an important victory to get West Chester’s name back out there again,” Zwaan confirmed. “It hasn’t been for a couple years. The goal was to make sure that when people saw this score around the country, they would say, ‘watch out, West Chester is back.’”
The Rams have won four straight, improve to 4-1 overall, and have yet to drop a game to a Division II opponent. To put the latest victory in perspective, Cal (4-1) entered the game with a stellar 24-5 record versus PSAC East opponents in the last decade. It certainly wasn’t easy, however.
Running back Rondell White notched his second 200-yard rushing game this season, and his second of two touchdowns with just over three minutes remaining put the Rams in front by 10. But it wasn’t over yet – not by a long shot.
Just one week after scoring nine points in the final 52 seconds against PSAC West rival Indiana (Pa.), the Vulcans (4-1) roared back with a 78-yard march that took just 1:06. That’s when senior safety John O’Donnell delivered one of two monumental plays on the day by controlling the crucial onside kick. It was something IUP was unable to do.
“Everybody looks to John to make a big play, and he does it,” Zwaan said.
“During practice this week, I missed a couple, so I was pretty worried,” O’Donnell admitted. “I got a big hop so I tried to attack it and jumped on it.”
But it still wasn’t over until linebacker Ronell Williams cradled a tipped pass for an interception with just over a minute on the clock.
“We know Cal can come back, and they went right down the field and took very little time to do it,” Zwaan said. “It was a little nerve racking, but I believe in our defense and I thought they’d make a play. I honestly never had a doubt.”
The Vulcans never led on Saturday, and trailed by 14 at the half. But they knotted the score, 27-27, late in the third, to set the stage for plenty of last period heroics. Reeling at the time without a point in the second half, the Rams ended the drought with a 43-yard Shawn Leo field goal to inch ahead with 7:28 on the clock. And then White bulled into the end zone from the one for what ended up being the game-winner with 3:22 remaining,
“It’s probably the biggest win we’ve had in three years,” Zwaan acknowledged. “But like I told the kids afterwards, we can’t leave it here. This can’t be the high point of the season.
“It’s big – no question about it – and we should feel good right now. But, if we don’t use this as a springboard, then we will be disappointed down the road.”
Playing in one of the region’s most challenging venues, WCU got off to a dream start with an early defensive touchdown from O’Donnell, followed by a lengthy sustained scoring march on its first offensive possession. But the Vulcans are used to trailing early, as they have in every game so far this season.
“We had a couple turnovers, they got back in the game and we had to battle back – and we did. We showed a lot of character today,” Zwaan said.
“Cal is ranked No. 6, so somebody out there is got to be noticing,” added White, who rolled up 280 all-purpose yards, including 200 on the ground. “The goal was to win and put West Chester back on the map. We did that.
“This is the biggest win of my college career, but we have big goals to achieve and this is just one game. We can’t afford to celebrate this one for too long.”
On the fifth play of the game, safety Shawn Krautzel forced a fumble and O’Donnell scooped up a loose football, and his 48-yard return gave WCU the early lead. It was 14-0 soon thereafter as quarterback Mike Mattei found Kelly in the end zone to culminate a 56-yard drive.
The Rams just missed a chance to increase the lead early in the second quarter after tackle Anthony McCloskey dropped back into coverage and picked off Lalich in Cal territory. Leo’s 45-yard field goal attempt was long enough but bounced off the right upright.
There were plenty of offensive fireworks in final eight minutes of the half, with West Chester and Cal exchanging four touchdowns. Mattei continued his hot hand by connecting on scoring tosses of 22- and 51-yards to White and Kelly, respectively, with the second coming at the 1:26 mark. But Leo missed his first PAT of the season (in 21 tries) to make it 27-13 at the half.
Cal came roaring back to start the third quarter, picking off a tipped Mattei pass and eventually turning it into a TD. The point after attempt was wide, but on the ensuing possession, White coughed it up in enemy territory. Cal went on to converted it into eight more points thanks to a scoring pass and a two-point conversion late in the third period.
“We were coming back from a rivalry game against IUP that means everything in the west, so you would worry about a letdown if this was against a team our guys felt good about beating,” Vulcans’ head coach Mike Kellar said. “But with West Chester, we don’t have to get our guys up for them. They know how good they are.”
Mattei was 23 of 43 for 289 yards and three touchdowns, and engineered an offense that rolled up 500 total yards. Kelly was once again his favorite target, hauling in eight passes for 123 yards and a pair of scores.
“The last two years we fell off the map, but this was a huge win against a big-time opponent,” Kelly said.
“Coming to play here is a little more than the usual road game,” O’Donnell pointed out. “It’s a heck of an environment, they have an excellent football team, so pulling out a win like this extremely satisfying.”
NOTES: One week after sustaining a scary neck injury, junior defender Eric Edwers not only suited up on Saturday, but made an impact on the field with five tackles, including a first period sack … Kelly, who replaced injured starter Tim Keyser in the starting lineup, has now accounted for five TDs in the last three games … O’Donnell’s first quarter interception return was his second touchdown of the season – and both covered 48 yards.
West Chester 14 13 0 10--37
California (Pa) 0 13 14 7--34
WCU -- O’Donnell 48 fumble return (Leo kick)
WCU -- Kelly 7 pass from Mattei (Leo kick)
Cal -- Knox 2 run (Nuzzo kick)
WCU -- White 22 pass from Mattei (Leo kick)
Cal -- Scott 44 pass from Lalich (kick failed)
WCU -- Kelly 51 pass from Mattei (kick failed)
Cal -- Knox 3 run (kick failed)
Cal -- Johnson 12 pass from Lalich (Williams pass)
WCU -- Leo 43 FG
WCU -- White 1 run (Leo kick)
Cal -- Johnson 15 pass from Lalich (Nuzzo kick)
First downs 25 22
Yards rushing 211 73
Yards passing 289 342
Total yards 500 415
Passing 23-44-2 29-47-2
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties 7-54 2-17
Punts-Avg. 4-37.8 7-39.1
RUSHING - West Chester: White 36-200 1TD, Mattei 3-12, Lee 1-5, Team 3-(-6). California: SMith 14-40, Knox 7-26 2TDs, Cook 3-10, Lalich 1-(-3).
PASSING - West Chester: Mattei 23-43-2 289 yards, 3TDs, Team 0-1-0. California: Lalich 29-47-2 342 yards, 3TDs.
RECEIVING - West Chester: Kelly 8-123 2TDs, White 6-80 1TD, Dempsey 4-24, Brundige 2-20, Beahan 2-14, Lee 1-28. California: Johnson 11-120 2TDs, Williams 6-55, Scott 3-95 1TD, Brown 3-33, Smith 3-20, williamson 2-11, Thomas 1-8.
SACKS - West Chester: Edwers. California: Stevens.
INTERCEPTIONS - West Chester: Williams, Bragg. California: Miles 2.