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NEC Champion Central Connecticut Battles PFL Winner Butler in Fourth Annual Gridiron Classic
Winning a postseason game is about the only thing Central Connecticut State has yet to do on the football field this year.
As a result of their Northeast Conference crown, the Blue Devils will have an opportunity to add that feat to their 2009 resume when they visit Pioneer League champion Butler in the fourth annual Gridiron Classic set for Saturday, December 5 at the Butler Bowl in Indianapolis, Indiana.
A triumph in its postseason debut at the Division I FCS level would give Central Connecticut a single-season, program-record 10th win. Already accounting for its best season in nearly four decades, CCSU has matched the win total of the 1973 team that finished 9-1.
Establishing an M.O. for their championship season, the Blue Devils overcame second-half deficits in seven of the nine victories.
Central Connecticut posted a 7-1 record in games decided by fewer than 10 points. Amazingly, each of the team’s last four wins has come by no more than two points.
Central erased a 23-14 halftime deficit to down two-time defending NEC champion Albany, the winner of last year’s Gridiron game, by a deuce. That triumph came one week after CCSU escaped Smithfield, Rhode Island with a 24-23 victory over Bryant.
“These young men compete, snap to whistle, from the beginning of the game until the end of game,” NEC Coach of the Year Jeff McInerney.
The Blue Devils would need all four quarters to survive the pair of one-point wins that followed.
First, McInerney’s comeback kids used three fourth-quarter touchdowns to storm back from 19 points down and defeat Monmouth, 20-19, for the first time since 2005.
The Blue Devils were on the verge of seeing their first-ever outright NEC title slip away in the season finale at Saint Francis (PA). They trailed the Red Flash, 13-7, until a two-yard touchdown plunge capped a seven-play, 75-yard drive with 2:21 remaining in their 14-13 win.
Recounting a conversation he had with Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan, whose 2004 Hawks had a number of close calls on the way to being crowned Mid-Major National Champions, McInerney noted a common belief between he and his NEC colleague.
“Good teams make the play when it counts and they have the ability to play all 60 minutes,” the Blue Devils’ fourth-year coach said.
The team on the other side of the field in Saturday’s Gridiron Classic has also shown a flair for the dramatic, winning three games on their final possession.
Butler watched Morehead State score the first 21 points, all in the first quarter, of the Pioneer League opener before coming back to win, 28-21, in overtime.
The Bulldogs used a last-second 37-yard field goal from sophomore David Lang to sink PFL preseason favorite San Diego, 25-24, back on October 3.
Lang did it again the last week of the season, kicking a 27-yarder with 0:01 remaining to push the Bulldogs past Drake, 20-17, and into the postseason for the first time since 1991.
Unlike Lang, NEC Offensive Player of the Year James Mallory (Buffalo, NY/Kenmore West) hasn’t kicked any game-winning field goals, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t made his presence felt on special teams.
Mallory (3,136) stands 212 yards shy of becoming CCSU’s all-time leading rusher, trailing only Stan House (3,347). His 113.0 yards per game this season rank fourth in Division I FCS.
“James brings something special,” McInerney said.
Mallory’s ability to run the football isn’t necessarily the characteristic that most impresses his head coach.
“You don’t carry the ball 30 times a game and then run down and cover kickoffs. It’s very rare to see that and James is begging [for the chance] to do it,” McInerney said of the two-time all-NEC running back’s contributions on special teams.
“You don’t [see players] block punts and tackle the punter like James does.”
Mallory blocked his first of three punts this season during a comeback victory over Columbia, the Northeast Conference’s first-ever triumph over a Ivy League member in four tries.
“If you look at his entire body of work from this season, there’s no better player in the Northeast Conference, in my mind, than James Mallory,” McInerney proclaimed.
On Saturday, Mallory will go up against a Butler run defense that has allowed a stingy 106.2 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry.
Opponents have managed only nine rushing touchdowns against the Bulldogs this season. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils’ ground game has been responsible for 25 scores this season, 15 of which belong to Mallory.
Central Connecticut State’s 218.5 rush yards per contest sit seventh amongst 2009 DI FCS leaders, accounting for the Blue Devils’ fourth consecutive top-10 national ranking in that category.
Success running the football has become a staple for CCSU under McInerney. The Blue Devils have featured the Northeast Conference’s top-ranked rushing attack in each of his four seasons at the helm.
This year, however, the Blue Devils have also been beating teams through the air.
CCSU’s 222 pass attempts, 146 completions, and 1,866 yards passing are the most during McInerney’s tenure.
Senior quarterback Aubrey Norris (Staten Island, NY/Hargrave Military) came off the bench in the second quarter against Columbia and proceeded to enjoy his best season in a Blue Devil uniform since winning the 2005 NEC Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
“Aubrey has really grown into a leader for us. He’s really developed and that’s been huge,” McInerney said.
The mobile Norris, who has rushed for well over 1,000 yards in his career, completed 67.0 percent of his passes for 1,042 yards and four touchdowns.
His most impressive stat is probably the 5-0 record he produced as a starter, which was in addition to the comeback win he engineered at Columbia.
CCSU’s passing attack benefitted greatly from the emergence of all-NEC receiver Josue Paul (Delray Beach, FL/Pope John Paul II). The third-year Blue Devil, who burst onto the scene as an explosive kick returner in 2007, made 53 receptions for 782 yards and five touchdowns.
Norris and Paul hooked up on scoring plays in each of CCSU’s last three games, including the game-winning 69-yard touchdown against Monmouth with 2:23 left on the clock.
“Being able to throw the ball down field has been the difference between this year’s team and the others I’ve had here,” McInerney said. “It makes us that much harder to defend.”
Butler isn’t an easy team to defend either, especially with the dual threat that sophomore quarterback Andrew Huck poses.
The second team all-Pioneer League passer has thrown for 20 touchdowns and rushed for another seven. In addition to compiling for 2038 pass yards and a 61.6 completion percentage, Huck averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
The Pioneer League’s top-ranked offense (392.0 ypg) is a balanced one.
“They’re a very diverse group that is well-coached and has a good quarterback,” said McInerney of his Gridiron Classic opponent.
The Bulldogs, who totaled 682 plays on offense this season, own a run-pass ratio of 51-to-49. They are averaging 213.5 yards per game through the air and 178.5 on the ground.
All-PFL receivers Zach Watkins (first team) and Dan Bohrer (second team) will have to contend with a Blue Devils’ secondary that features three all-Northeast Conference honorees led by senior quarterback Marcus Dorsey (Germantown, MD/Seneca Valley).
The 6-foot-1 Dorsey recorded 13 pass break-ups and a NEC-high five interceptions, including one he returned 100 yards for a touchdown in the waning minutes of a win over cross-state rival Sacred Heart.
“Marcus has made a lot of big plays for us. He’s covered all the big-time receivers in our league. He’s been fabulous for us,” MicInerney said.
Each side enters Saturday’s postseason showdown as a result of game-changing plays made by game-changing players like Dorsey.
Like Callahan said in his chat with McInerney. Whatever needed to be done, both CCSU and Butler found a way to do it, even if it took all 60 minutes.
Now, 60 minutes are all that separates one of these two teams from a first-ever postseason win at the FCS level.
NEC Postseason Progression
From ECAC to the GRIDIRON to FCS
The Northeast Conference’s postseason opportunities have evolved over the years since the league began Division I football competition in 1996. Now 14 seasons later, a bid into the NCAA championship bracket sits on the horizon. Come 2010, the NEC will gain automatic access into the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs as a result of NCAA Board approval for championship bracket expansion.
The postseason championship opportunity that awaits the league will be the next chapter in a history that began with a NEC member Robert Morris’ victory in 1996 ECAC Football Classic. The Colonials edged MAAC champion, and cross-town rival, Duquesne, now a NEC member, 28-26. The game went on hiatus from 1998-2000 before Sacred Heart bested Duquesne in the 2001 Classic in Pittsburgh. The Dukes returned to the ECAC game as the MAAC representative for each of the next two seasons. Albany defeated Duquesne, 24-0, in the 2002 postseason before DU bounced back to outlast Monmouth, 12-10, in the final ECAC Classic on November 22, 2003.
In 2006, the Gridiron Classic was born. Monmouth hosted San Diego as the West Coast met the Jersey Shore in the first-ever Gridiron game broadcast to a live national television audience by CSTV. Jim Harbaugh’s Toreros prevailed in West Long Branch, 27-7, as the NEC and Pioneer Football League began a tradition that Central Connecticut State and Butler will continue on December 5, 2009.
Below is a year-by-year look at the NEC’s Postseason History
Postseason Game (Location) – Result - Date
2008 Gridiron Classic (Albany, NY) - Albany 28, Jacksonville 0 - Dec. 6
2007 Gridiron Classic (Dayton, OH) - Dayton 42, Albany 21- Dec. 1
2006 Gridiron Classic (W. Long Branch, NJ) - San Diego 27, Monmouth 7 - Dec. 2
2003 ECAC Classic (Pittsburgh, PA) - Duquesne 12, Monmouth 10 - Nov. 22
2002 ECAC Classic (Albany, NY) - Albany 24, Duquesne 0 - Nov. 23
2001 ECAC Classic (Pittsburgh, PA) - Sacred Heart 31, Duquesne 15 - Dec. 1
1997 ECAC Classic (Washington, DC) - Robert Morris 35, Georgetown 13 - Nov. 22
1996 ECAC Classic (Pittsburgh, PA) - Robert Morris 28, Duquesne 26 - Nov. 23
By Northeast Conference Media Relations