SCHENECTADY — For Union football on Saturday afternoon against Utica, it was the best of halves, then it was the worst of halves.
The Dutchmen offense was nearly flawless in the opening 30 minutes at Frank Bailey Field, scoring on all four of its drives and opening up a 17-point lead. But just before the half, when Union quarterback Donovan Pacatte dove to finish off a 14-yard scramble for a first down, he came up favoring his left shoulder and headed to the sidelines, where he’d spend the rest of the game.
Backup Stratton Sherman entered, and Union finished off the drive with a Michael Fiore touchdown run, but that was the last piece of good news the Dutchmen got on offense. In the second half, the unit that put up 312 yards before halftime was limited to 15 yards on 15 plays, punted on all five of its drives and didn’t pick up a single first down.
Meanwhile, Utica’s offense reeled off three scoring drives to tie the game before Nate Palmer took a punt back 43 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 10:28 left that spelled the difference in the Dutchmen’s 31-24 loss as Union will now limp into next week’s Liberty League opener against Buffalo State on the heels of its first loss of the season.
“Our intensity was low [in the second half], considering what happened in the first half,” Union running back Ike Irabor said. “We didn’t come out as strong as we should’ve. In a sense, you say that we [underestimated] our opponent at that point. But next week, we’re not doing that. We’re not letting that happen.”
Few players felt the dichotomy between first and second half harder than Irabor.
With Pacatte in the game in the first half, the Union (3-1 overall) senior tailback carried the ball four times for 112 yards, including an 84-yard touchdown in the second quarter where he raced untouched past the entire Utica defense.
After halftime, Irabor carried the ball six times for a net loss of six yards as Utica’s defense loaded up to take away the Union rushing attack with the Schuylerville native Sherman replacing Cobleskill native Pacatte.
“When you have to change the quarterback mid-game, it’s tough on the whole team,” Irabor said. “You have to change your whole dynamic. But, we’ll learn from this, we’ll be back and it’ll be better.”
“It became very tough,” Union coach Jeff Behrman said. “We just didn’t execute well enough to help [Sherman] out at all.”
Union’s second-half struggles weren’t limited to the offensive side of the ball. The Dutchmen allowed Utica (4-0 overall) to score on its first three possessions of the second half, special teams struggles resulted in Utica’s game-winning punt return and Union committed five penalties for 44 yards — including multiple personal fouls — after being flagged just twice in the first half.
“We didn’t execute well, all facets of the game,” Behrman said. “It was really offense, defense and special teams. We made a lot of errors.”
Utica quarterback Braeden Zenelovic, who joined the Pioneers after three years as a backup at UAlbany, was 21 of 27 for 274 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He hit Travis Decker for a 68-yard score in the first half on a wild play that saw Union defensive back Azarai Lewis whiff on what would’ve been an interception return for a touchdown only for the ball to end up in the hands of Decker, who weaved through the Union secondary for the touchdown. Zenelovic also hit Palmer for a 9-yard score that tied the game up with 11:44 left in the fourth quarter.
Decker’s score wasn’t Utica’s only lucky-break touchdown. On the Pioneers’ first drive of the second half, backup quarterback and Shenendehowa High School graduate Brendan Belott lost the ball surging for the goal line, but offensive lineman Ryan Farrington fell on the loose ball in the end zone for the score.
“That’s football,” Behrman said. “We’ve been on that side of things in different games as well. Just not today.”
Before exiting the game, Pacatte — whom Behrman said would be evaluated more by the training staff Sunday before a determination is made on his status moving forward — was 5 of 7 for 90 yards through the air, including a 31-yard touchdown to Andre Ross Jr. He also picked up 39 yards on eight rushing attempts.
“[The loss] makes us focus,” Irabor said. “It humbles us as well. We’re not always going to be that big-dog team. We’re going to face adversity. We’ve got to be able to do what we need to do.”
- Utica 0 7 10 14 — 31
- Union 7 17 0 0 — 24
- Union — Ross 31 pass from Pacatte (Lau kick)
- Union — Lau 30 field goal
- Utica — Decker 68 pass from Zenelovic (Lichtman kick)
- Union — Irabor 84 run (Lau kick)
- Union — Fiore 1 run (Lau kick)
- Utica — Farrington fumble recovery in end zone (Lichtman kick)
- Utica — Lichtman 20 field goal
- Utica — Palmer 9 pass from Zenelovic (Lichtman kick)
- Utica — Palmer 43 punt return (Lichtman kick)
ST. JOHN FISHER 3, RPI 0
ROCHESTER — After having seemed to solve their early-season offensive woes a week earlier, the Engineers sputtered again, managing just 220 total yards in a loss to St. John Fisher.
The game’s only points came on a 26-yard field goal by St. John Fisher’s Kyle Farewell midway through the first quarter.
RPI fell to 2-2 on the season despite having allowed just 20 points in four games. The Engineers held St. John Fisher to 168 total yards, but again struggled to produce in the passing game where Jake Kazanowsky and Matt Petercuskie were a combined 12 of 25 for 122 yards and an interception.
- RPI 0 0 0 0 — 0
- St. John Fisher 3 0 0 0 — 3
- SJF — Farewell 26 field goal