NEW BRITAIN - It was cold. It was windy. But as the Central Connecticut State football team trudged out of its locker room this past Saturday, there were plenty of smiles to go around.
That’s what a 38-31 overtime win will do. Yet, as the players walked off the field, there was also a collective sigh of relief. Given the events of the day, it made plenty of sense.
The now No. 18/19 Blue Devils needed a 19-yard field goal from Joe Zoppi in the closing seconds of regulation to tie the game, and then escaped upset-minded St. Francis (Pa) after a touchdown pass from Aaron Winchester and a sack from Mike Mushaw in the extra period kept their conference title and playoff hopes alive.
“I said to the kids, ‘good teams find a way to win,’ and there were times obviously that were full grim,” CCSU head coach Ryan McCarthy said. “But we found way to pull it out in the end.”
It’s represented an interesting trend for the Blue Devils (9-1, 5-0) as of late.
In a season where CCSU’s defense has show a penchant for taking the ball away from opponents - the unit is tied for second in the FCS with 15 interceptions and four defensive touchdowns - and leads the nation in total defense by allowing just 276.6 yards per game, the offense has struggled at times to be consistent in one aspect or another as it would like, even as stats say otherwise. The team leads the conference in a majority of offensive categories such as total offense (414.6 ypg), scoring offense (34 ppg), rushing offense (197.4 ypg), pass efficiency (174.1), first downs (19 per game), and time of possession (31:55 a game).
“It’s just understanding that we can’t let up,” said Winchester, who threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the win. “We know we have the bulls eye on our backs from us being nationally ranked and that’s OK, that’s what we want. We just have to have that mindset of bringing our A game every day.”
Against winless LIU two weeks ago, the Blue Devils compiled just 321 yards of total offense, then their lowest yardage output of the season. They followed up it with 279 yards, including just 66 rushing against Wagner, which, despite its own record, has a quality defense.
Against the Red Flash, CCSU struggled to build on its early lead. The team converted on 5 of its 13 third-down opportunities and ran for 128 yards, making it the third week in a row the Blue Devils have rushed for 150 yards or less. McCarthy called it an up-and down performance.
Some of that has to do with injuries. The Blue Devils have been without their leading rusher from last season, Aaron Dawson, for most of the year and have had key offensive linemen such as center Cole Phelps, guard J'Von Brown and left tackle Connor Mignone miss a game or two. Against St. Francis (Pa), CCSU lost All-NEC tight end Arthur Gilmore before the start of the fourth quarter.
Some of it has to do with penalties. The Blue Devils are the most penalized team in the NEC. But each time, CCSU has managed to come out with a win.
“It’s about battling through adversity and a lot of teams can’t do that,” receiver Tyshaun James said.
That’s been perhaps the most important factor, is that when the Blue Devils need a big play or two, they have a knack for delivering.
It happened early in the season against Fordham and Merrimack when CCSU needed a field goal as time expired in back-to-back weeks to eke out a pair of wins. It happened against Wagner when Winchester, who is on the Walter Payton Award watch list for the most outstanding offensive player in the FCS, threw two second-half touchdown passes, one a 39 yarder to Kyren Petteway and the second a 35-yard pass to James to break a 13-13 tie.
And as one might deduce, the Blue Devils showed the same fortitude against St. Francis.
“We’ve been in that situation before and it shows you our kids don’t quit,” McCarthy said.
Down 24-21 after CCSU’s defense forced a turnover, Winchester connected with James for a 49-yard pass down the Blue Devils sideline. Two plays later, James took advantage of 1-on-1 coverage in the end zone and came away with a 15-yard touchdown reception. James finished the game with 174 all-purpose yards (95 receiving, 48 rushing and 31 passing). He also had a 48-yard rushing score on a jet sweep to boost the run game and has 12 total touchdowns on the season.
There was, of course, Zoppi’s field goal to tie the game after St. Francis had scored and included two crucial 3rd-down conversions. In overtime, Winchester connected with Petteway for a wide open 21-yard touchdown with that play coming on another critical 3rd-down play with the offense converting on 3rd-and-6.
“It’s all about making sure you do the little stuff right,” James said.
CCSU would certainly like to avoid having to do the late heroics on a weekly basis, but as it’s shown, if it needs to, it has no problem do so. The Blue Devils have already passed those tests.
“Adversity is going to come with this game and it’s going to show the character of the guys you’ve got on your team,” Winchester said. “And we’ve shown on and on again that we can fight through it.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org