By: Marshall Hastings
As Western New England University drove the ball down the field with under one minute to play, a once protected 10-point lead by Springfield was shrunk to just three. A game that looked locked up was now open for the taking.
After a quick Western New England score and a questionable onside recovery, the Golden Bears were threatening to pop the bubble of a talented Springfield team in the first-ever meeting between the two squads on the gridiron.
Just as fast as Western New England had closed the gap, Springfield’s Matt Berni took the hopes of an opening weekend win with him on a 70-yard interception return for six points, sealing a 49-40 victory for the Pride.
In a game that saw three extra points blocked, four lead changes and a pair of 10-point rallies, Springfield advanced through a historical showdown with the Golden Bears on the back of timely defense and gutsy play-calling.
“The team was fine and they were going to respond to the situation,” said head coach Mike Delong, who is entering his 3oth season at the helm for the Pride football team.“A big play always helps team confidence.”
The Pride got going early using their powerful running game to take an early 6-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown carry from sophomore fullback Keith Rodman. Western New England responded with a touchdown carry of their own, a 28-yard scamper from junior quarterback John Krafick.
Looking to take the lead, Springfield blocked the ensuing extra-point attempt and freshman Blake Joppy bolted the length of the field for two points.
The Pride would trade touchdowns with Western New England before the Golden Bears pulled ahead 27-23 at the half as junior running back Michael Ozzella powered in for a 2-yard score.
To begin the second half, Springfield coughed the ball up on their own 43-yard line. The Golden Bears made quick work of the turnover, as Krafick hit junior wide receiver Adam Dunne for a 9-yard score.
Facing their largest deficit of the game, the Pride sparked their rally on a 13-yard touchdown scamper from senior halfback Joel Altavesta.
Trailing by three entering the fourth quarter, Springfield went back to the power running game, piecing together a 13-play drive capped off by a 1-yard touchdown from Franco Bianchi.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, the Pride got the ball back on their own 38. SC went to work again, busting out a quick 10 play drive that appeared to net them a crucial touchdown.
As Joppy appeared to break through for the score with under six minutes to play, a pair of personal fouls against the Pride moved the ball back from the 11- to the 36-yard line. Facing 1st-and-35, Springfield pulled the rabbit out of the hat, executing a seamless trick play.
It started when sophomore quarterback Jonathan Marrero fired a quick screen pass to wide receiver James Poggio.
As the defense collapsed on Poggio, the senior fired a strike in stride to a wide-open Jason Woods, who had gotten behind the Golden Bears’ secondary.
As the suddenly hushed crowd looked on in disbelief, Woods did his best Cam Newton impression in the direction of the Western New England student section, acting as if he were revealing the Superman suit beneath his jersey while his teammates erupted behind him.
“It’s pretty nerve-racking,” said senior Joel Altavesta. “We don’t do many trick plays…I was just worried about my part and everybody else did their jobs and it worked.”
Springfield missed the ensuing extra point attempt, leaving the lead at 10.
Western New England put together a 10-play drive of their own, cutting the deficit to just three points and setting up a key onside kick.
As the onside kick fluttered towards the Pride return team, the ball kicked off one of the front men and bounced back behind the Golden Bears’ hands team. As both teams converged on the loose ball, Western New England managed to come up with the important recovery. Krafick and the rest of the Golden Bear offense began moving the ball downfield, trying to set up the game-tying field goal, before Berni took the breath out of the school-record attendance and handed the Pride an opening weekend victory, their first season-opening road win since 2008.
For the Pride offense, three players ran for over 100 yards, as Marrero totaled a game high 157 yards. Senior free safety Sam Weiss and Berni each totaled 12 total tackles for the Springfield defense.
While the offense was powerful, racking up over 500 yards of total offense – 469 of which came from the running game – a concern regarding the turnovers still exists as the Pride turned the ball over three times.
“That’s something that we can’t have happen,” noted Altavesta. “If we have those mistakes, we aren’t going to beat a team like (Hobart), and the less mistakes the better chance we have to win.”
Despite the turnovers, the offense was still potent and the defense came up with timely plays as Springfield begins to look ahead for their home opener against the Husson Eagles.
“We expected to win and we expected to win by a lot,” Altavesta said. “We didn’t do that, so we’re hoping to make a point and lay a smack on Husson.”