There was a time, not too long ago, when the Union College football team strongly resembled Hobart, the Dutchmen’s longtime rival currently considered to be one of the best Division III programs in the country.
But they are worlds apart right now.
Hobart, ranked sixth in the nation in the American Football Coaches Association DIII poll, rode the outstanding special teams play of LaSalle Institute graduate Gabriel Smith and the hard running of senior tailback Steven Webb to a convincing 41-20 victory Saturday at Frank Bailey Field.
The Statesmen improved to 5-0 in the Liberty League and 7-0 overall. Union, which still holds a 50-45-2 edge in the all-time series that began in 1896, slides to 2-3 and 2-6. Hobart, league champion in eight of the last 14 seasons, has won the last four meetings with Union.
Smith, a 5-foot-7, 170-pound cornerback, blocked two punts, including one he returned for an 18-yard touchdown. His other block set up another Hobart score.
Webb continued his domination of the Union defense with his third career 100-yard performance against the Garnet. He ran for 128 yards and scored twice, including his 50th career touchdown. Webb has 14 career 100-yard rushing games and went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
In last year’s game, a 42-34 Hobart win at Boswell Field in Geneva, Webb ran for a career-high 199 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns.
A banged up Union team, which started four freshman offensive linemen and a backup quarterback, stayed in the game for a little over a quarter, but the Statesmen gradually pulled away. Union mistakes didn’t help the situation, as the Dutchmen had three punts at least partially blocked. Union was whistled for 84 yards on 10 penalties and also turned the ball over twice in the second half.
“They [the Statesmen] are a good team,” said Union head coach John Audino, whose Dutchmen will finish below the .500 mark for only the second time in the last 28 years. “We played them pretty well early on, and we were hanging with them. But then we made all those mistakes. Obviously, the mental and physical mistakes we made didn’t help.”
Audino acknowledged that all the injuries the Dutchmen have suffered have hurt the team’s chances for success.
“Obviously, we are not playing with the same team we started out with this season,” Audino said. “But our younger guys are gaining valuable experience. Yes, we are going through some growing pains, which is very unusual for our program. There are always high expectations for this team. But you can’t make the physical and mental mistakes that we made today and expect to have a chance to beat a good team like Hobart. We definitely didn’t execute today.”
Senior quarterback Nick Becker, making only his third career start, agreed that the Dutchmen simply didn’t play well enough to beat a good team. He refused to play the injury card.
“We have to make more plays. We didn’t execute at all today,” he said. “Our coaches came up with an excellent game plan, and we didn’t follow it. We probably had to play close to a perfect game, or at least play our own game, to have a chance to win today. We felt we were in the game the whole time.
“The injuries don’t get us down. On this team, we have a next-guy-up mentality. It’s the same with our offensive linemen. They played a very good game, even though they didn’t have that much experience. After the first series, I went over to them and talked to them about not getting down. We just have to keep fighting.”
Smith’s first blocked punt gave Hobart the ball on the Union 40-yard line, and the Statesmen pounded the ball in for a score in five plays. Webb ran three times during the short drive, which was capped by a 26-yard scoring pass from Patrick Conlan to Troy Robinson with 7:51 left in the first quarter.
After Union failed to move the ball on its next series, Hobart scored quickly on a three-play, 75-yard drive. Conlan hit John Fasano in stride on a 48-yard post pattern, and Sean Kirshe added his second PAT for a 14-0 advantage with five minutes remaining in the quarter.
A Webb fumble recovered by Union sophomore linebacker Thomas Hayes set up Union’s first score. Becker completed four passes on the drive, including a six-yard swing pass to T.J. Franzese for the score. David Pope’s PAT failed, but the Dutchmen cut their deficit to 14-6 with 11:08 left in the half.
But Hobart countered with a three-yard sweep for a touchdown by Webb, and the Statesmen took a 21-6 lead.
On the very next possession, Smith blocked a punt, picked up the loose ball and rambled 18 yards for his first collegiate touchdown and third blocked punt this season to give Hobart a commanding 28-6 advantage.
“It feels real nice to block a punt, especially to score on one. That’s three blocks this year,” said Smith, who blocked a punt against Springfield two weeks ago. “It’s great to be part of the special team unit. Special teams hold the guys together.”
Hobart 14 14 13 0 — 41
Union 0 6 7 7 — 20
H — Robinson 26 pass from Conlan (Kirsche kick).
H — Fasano 48 pass from Conlan (Kirshe kick).
U — Franzese 6 pass from Becker (kick failed).
H — Webb 3 run (Kirshe kick).
H — Smith 18 blocked punt return (Kirshe kick).
H — Burns 2 run (Kirshe kick).
H — Webb 3 run (kick failed).
U — Meile 5 pass from Becker (Pope kick).
U — Kazeem 5 pass from Geller (Pope kick).
First downs 19 19
Rushes-yards 49-183 31-106
Passing yards 194 249
Att-Comp-Int. 18-10-1 47-30-1
Return yards 56 2
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-1
Punts-avg. 5-36.6 7-26.1
Penalties-yards 9-101 10-84