The Union College football team has been down this bumpy road before, but this time, it’s a little bit different.
Capitalizing on two major mistakes by the Dutchmen’s special teams units, St. Lawrence University handed Union a 30-20 Liberty League setback Saturday on Frank Bailey Field. It is the third consecutive 0-3 start for the Dutchmen.
“This one hurts, because it’s a league loss,” said Union head coach John Audino. “The last two years, we also started 0-3, but they were all three non-league games. We still have seven games left, and a lot can happen. But we need to complement each other. When the defense plays well, we need the offense and special teams to also play well. We were just too inconsistent on offense today.”
Although the Dutchmen outgained the Saints, 411-266, Union’s passing game was sluggish. Junior quarterback Connor Eck completed only 13 of 31 passes for 148 yards. Although he ran 29 times on keepers and scrambles, he lost 51 yards from five sacks to drop his rushing total from 122 yards to just 71 net.
The bright spot for the Union offense was tailback Darnel Thomas, who ran for 122 yards and a touchdown, all in the first half. Union churned out 263 yards rushing after struggling in that department the previous two weeks.
Union also continued to have turnover problems, with Eck fumbling the ball away three times. He also threw an interception.
In fact, turnovers, trick plays and opportunistic special teams play accounted for a great deal of the Saints’ scoring.
On Union’s second possession of the game, Eck fumbled the snap and senior linebacker Andrew Cox recovered on the Union 33-yard line.
Union’s defense stiffened, but when Collin Shapiro lined up for a 42-yard field-goal attempt, the Saints pulled a trick play, as holder Nik Busharis tossed a 25-yard TD strike to Mike Tateosian. Shapiro tacked on the PAT for a 7-0 lead with 8:42 left in the period.
Audino said he didn’t scout that fake field-goal play, but the Saints had been practicing it because Busharis was the Saints’ quarterback two years ago before switching positions to a tight end and special teams player.
“I’m a little rusty, but I can still throw the ball,” said Busharis. “We practice some of those plays from time to time, but I’m just happy we won. This was a real team game, and I’m very proud of the way all of our guys played.”
Busharis wasn’t through yet.
On Union’s next drive, which reached the SLU 38-yard line, Eck fumbled again, and freshman defensive tackle Cyron Brown-Wallace recovered at the 41. Five plays later, Busharis lined up in the backfield and took a pitch from quarterback Mike Lefflbline on an option. Busharis then heaved a 30-yard TD strike to Colby Johnson. Shapiro’s PAT was blocked, but the Saints had a 13-0 advantage with 3:57 remaining in the first quarter.
Things looked bleak for the Dutchmen, but suddenly, their dormant offense began to click.
Eck ran three times for 34 yards, Thomas added two rushes for 15 yards and then T.J. Franzese scored on a delay trap from 12 yards out to put the Dutchmen on the board. David Pope added the PAT to cut the Union deficit to 13-7.
Two plays later, the momentum swung completely in Union’s favor, as Lefflbine coughed up the football on a second-and-seven from the SLU 23-yard line.
Senior nose tackle Jake Lebowitz pounced on the loose ball in the air and rambled 17 yards for a touchdown. Pope’s PAT was blocked, but the Dutchmen tied the score at 13-13.
“That’s my first touchdown ever,” said the 6-foot, 240-pound Lebowitz. “Our defense has been playing pretty well in the first three games.”
Union continued to ride its momentum on its next series. Eck completed a 13-yard pass to Brian Havlicek before Thomas broke loose down the sideline for a 57-yard run that set up his own five-yard off-tackle burst for a touchdown with 10:57 left in the first half to give Union a 20-13 edge.
The Dutchmen had an excellent chance to pad their lead in the final minute of the half when they marched to the SLU 23-yard line, but Eck fumbled for the third time, and Cox recovered just before time expired.
Union looked to pull away again late in the third quarter, when the Dutchmen drove to the St. Lawrence 25-yard line. But the possession stalled, and Pope lined up for a 43-yard field-goal attempt. The kick was blocked by Brown-Wallace. Connor O’Brien picked it up and scored on an 84-yard return to knot the score at 20-20 with 4:59 left in the period.
St. Lawrence took a 27-20 lead early in the fourth quarter when tailback Maurice Irby spun away from several tacklers and sprinted for a 21-yard scoring run.
St. Lawrence’s final score was set up by another Union miscue. Eck was intercepted by senior linebacker Alec Dietsch on the Union 41-yard line, and Shapiro kicked a 27-yard field goal to give the Saints some more breathing room with 10:40 left in the game.
Union reached the St. Lawrence 23-yard line with 6:24 left, but Eck’s fourth-and-six pass fell incomplete.
“We knew Union was a good team, and that they had a very good quarterback,” said St. Lawrence head coach Mark Raymond. “He’s an excellent athlete, and we knew he could run with the ball.
“But we put a lot of pressure on him and got some sacks. I think we had a very good team effort today, and we capitalized a lot on Union’s mistakes.”
Eck said Union must and will do better.
“We have a good offense, but we haven’t shown it so far,” he said. “I’m the leader of this team, and everything trickles down from me. I’ve got to do a better job.”
Audino said his team’s mistakes were costly.
“We’re inconsistent on offense. You can’t make four turnovers and give the ball away in the end zone,” he said. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.
“We’re playing pretty well on defense, but special teams gave up two scores.”
Audino said the Dutchmen expected Eck to run the ball as much as he did.
“We wanted to give Connor the ball. We were running a lot of zone/read stuff, and he always has the option to run,” Audino said.
“We did a little better running the ball, but we didn’t do much at all in the second half.”
Jake LaRovera led all players with 10 tackles for Union, while Shane Hart and Cox had nine tackles each for the Saints. Rajiv Heron had a sack with another tackle for a loss and a forced fumble for the Saints.
Union travels to Springfield on Saturday and returns home to host WPI Oct. 12 in the annual homecoming game.
St. Lawrence 13 0 7 10 — 30
Union 7 13 0 0 — 20
SLU —Tateosian 25 pass from Busharis (Shapiro kick).
SLU — Johnson 30 pass from Busharis (kick blocked).
U — Franzese 12 run (Pope kick).
U — Lebowitz 17 fumble recovery (kick blocked).
U — Thomas 5 run (Pope kick).
SLU – O’Brien 84 blocked FG return
SLU — Irby 25 run (Shapiro kick).
SLU — Shapiro 27 FG.
SLU Union First downs 30 20
Rushes-yards 31-86 53-263
Passing yards 180 148
Att-Comp-Int 25-17-0 31-13-1
Return yards 153 0
Fumbles-lost 1-1 3-3
Punts-avg. 6-38.5 3-32.0
Penalties-yards 8-87 3-19