By NEIL GEOGHEGAN
WEST GOSHEN – With the game in serious jeopardy, and, perhaps, the season tethering on the brink, West Chester came up with a series of huge game-changing plays down the stretch to inch past visiting Gannon, 21-17, in a PSAC crossover football clash on Saturday at Farrell Stadium.
With a new starting quarterback at the helm, the Golden Rams’ offense struggled mightily all afternoon before awakening late and putting together a game-winning 70-yard scoring drive. And the new-look WCU defense kept the Rams in contention by forcing five turnovers, including the second interception of the day by senior safety John O’Donnell that set up difference-making final score.
“We would have lost that game the last couple years, but we pulled it out,” said relieved West Chester head coach Bill Zwaan. “We just kept battling on defense and the offense finally was able to get something going. That was a huge gut-check for our players.
“We will find out down the road how big this one was. Losing this game would have been tough to swallow, but we pulled it out. You know, I tell the kids all the time, there is never a bad win.”
The Rams head into next weekend’s PSAC East opener versus Millersville at 1-1 overall, but there is little doubt that they would be 0-2, if not for the big 5-0 discrepancy in turnovers.
“We’ve struggled early in the last two seasons and it’s really hurt us,” said O’Donnell, who opened the scoring with a pick-six. “At the half, we talked about not letting it happen again.
“It was ugly but it’s still pretty because it’s a win. We are just happy to get out of here with the win but we know we have some work to do.”
Just nine days after gashing a nationally-ranked FCS opponent for 224 yards in the ground – including a Delaware Stadium record 209 from junior Rondell White -- the Rams inexplicably struggled to run the football Saturday. Couple that with a shaky outing by quarterback Mike Mattei, who made his first start in 20 months in place of the injured Sean McCartney, and it was bound to be a rather frustrating outing.
“It was obvious that we struggled offensively,” Zwaan said. “We couldn’t get Rondell established, and when we tried to throw it over the top, we weren’t hitting open guys and we were dropping passes. The passing game just wasn’t in sync.
“(Gannon) decided to take away our big weapon, which is Rondell, and put the pressure on our backup quarterback to beat them. Mike finally did it at the end.”
White finished with just 45 yards on 18 carries, but he gained 16 critical yards on a screen pass to help West Chester overcome a second-and-long to begin the comeback. Four plays later, Mattie found wideout Erick Brundidge on a 29-yard scoring strike with 5:10 remaining.
But it wasn’t over until defenders Al-Haji Shabazz and Carl Barnes combined to make one final impact play, thwarting a fake punt by Gannon on the next series. Just 5-5 at home in the previous two seasons -- which stands in stark contrast to the program’s stellar 31-6 mark at Farrell Stadium during Zwaan’s first seven years on the sidelines – the apparently overconfident Rams survived.
“I guess maybe we came in a little too cocky,” Mattei conceded.
“We’ve got to dig deep,” added White. “We can’t sleep on anyone. Maybe some of us slept on (Gannon) a little bit.”
O’Donnell singlehandedly shifted momentum WCU’s way very early with an interception and a thrilling 48-yard TD return along the sideline through a bunch of would-be tacklers on the game’s first possession.
And then midway through the quarter, the Rams made it 14-0 when Dante Devine forced a fumble and teammate Anthony McCloskey pounced on the loose ball at the Gannon 32. A few plays later, LaRonn Lee hauled in a 23-yard scoring pass from Mattei, absorbing a big hit in the process.
But when the Golden Knights (1-1 overall) started to take care of the football, the tide quickly turned and Gannon proceeded to score 17 points in a row – including a touchdown in the final 25 seconds of the first half, and a 66-yarder against a blown coverage in the third – to put the Rams into a 17-14 hole.
And both scores came immediately after West Chester made trips into the red zone only to come away empty handed. Zwaan decided to forego a couple feasible field goal attempts by record-setting kicker Shawn Leo, and the sluggish offense wound up turning it over on downs both times.
“In retrospect, maybe I should have kicked them,” Zwaan said. “But we felt like the wind was gusting in such a way that it would be hard to judge.
“I don’t want to get conservative, but it’s not like we are not going to try to kick field goals this season.”
In all, the Knights had more first downs (17-15) and more yards (351-279), but couldn’t overcome three interceptions and two fumbles. Linebackers Ronell Williams and Mike Labor led the way with 12 and 11 tackles, respectively, for WCU.
“Gannon is a good passing team and we did a pretty good job against them. We got some turnovers and big stops, especially in the fourth quarter,” Zwaan said.
“It was a phenomenal effort by our defense,” Mattei pointed out. “They gave us all kinds of chances to win and we just didn’t have things going our way until the end.”
NOTES: Lee surpassed the 1,000-yard career receiving plateau with the first quarter touchdown reception … Injured quarterback Sean McCartney was on the sidelines despite undergoing season-ending surgery earlier in the week. Seated in a wheelchair, McCartney suffered a broken left ankle against Delaware … Rondell White left the game late in the fourth quarter with a bruised hip but said he would be ready for Millersville on Saturday evening. His backup, Brandon Monk (Avon Grove) filled in admirably, gaining 28 yards on three carries.
West Chester 21, Gannon 17
Gannon 0 10 7 0--17
West Chester 14 0 0 7--21
WCU -- O’Donnell 48 interception return (Leo kick)
WCU -- Lee 23 pass from Mattei (Leo kick)
Gan -- Szczupakowski FG 45
Gan -- Ocasio 31 pass from Nadler (Szczupakowski kick)
Gan -- Caliste 66 pass from Nadler (Szczupakowski)
WCU -- Brundige 29 pass from Mattei (Leo kick)
First downs 17 15
Yards rushing 83 95
Yards passing 268 184
Total yards 351 279
Passing 19-36-3 15-31-0
Fumbles-Lost 2-2 3-1
Penalties 6-55 5-86
Punts-Avg. 4-43.8 8-34.2
RUSHING - Gannon: Jones 13-41; Papson 11-33; Tune 1-0; Nadler 8-1. West Chester: White 18-43; Monk 3-28; Mattei 8-21; Keyser 1-3; Elliott 3-1; Team 3-0.
PASSING - Gannon: Nadler 18-35-3 267 yards 2TD, Crosby 1-1-0 1 yard. West Chester: Mattei 15-31-0 184 yards 2TD.
RECEIVING - Gannon: Ocasio 7-123 1TD; Caliste 5-116 1TD; Jones 3-15; Law 2-12; Papson 1-1; Mallin 1-1. West Chester: Keyser 4-39; Brundige 3-66 1TD; White 3-34; Lee 2-36 1TD; Dempsey 2-8; Kelly 1-1.
SACKS - Gannon: Herron, Jeffers .5, Giles 1; Fullum .5. West Chester: Cohen 1.5, Edwers 1.5.
INTERCEPTIONS - O’Donnell 2, Barnes.