Numbers can be deceiving. Even Union head coach John Audino shakes his head when looking at some of the impressive offensive statistics his Dutchmen produced, despite a frustrating 2-8 season in 2014.
“We had the best passing attack in the league, the top wide receiver and the top running back. Yet, we lost eight games,” Audino said during the Dutchmen’s annual football media day Tuesday, held inside the Viniar Athletic Center instead of on Frank Bailey Field because of the soaring temperatures that reached above 90. “You might think the problem was our defense, but we were also in the top half defensively in our league.”
How could the Dutchmen be so effective rolling up yardage and still lose so many games?
“The story of our season was not being able to finish games in the fourth quarter,” Audino said. “We were 0-for-17 trying to score in the fourth quarter of our first four games last year. We lost five games by eight points or less.”
Injuries and a corresponding lack of depth hurt the Dutchmen throughout the 2015 campaign. One of the key injuries was to senior starting quarterback Connor Eck, who had an assortment of ailments that limited him to 86 completions in 174 attempts for 956 yards and nine touchdowns in parts of six games. He’s now graduated, but sophomore Dante Cioffi is back after showing plenty of talent when he took over for Eck. Cioffi completed 74 of 154 passes for 1,008 yards and seven touchdowns, including five in one game.
“I think our wide receivers did a great job last year,” Cioffi said. “We moved the ball very well, but we just have to focus more at the end of games. It seemed like we were in almost all of the games. But in the fourth quarter, we didn’t get the breaks, and we didn’t play that well. It feels different this year, though. I’m not sure why, but all of us feel more dedicated.”
Cioffi said he doesn’t feel any added pressure this year to help the Dutchmen turn things around, but he said his personal goals are the same ones that most of his teammates have.
“I’m not a statistics guy, but I just want to close out games much better than we did a year ago,” he said.
Cioffi’s prime target in the passing game will be fifth-year senior Kyle Reynolds, who led the Liberty League in catches with 56 for 828 yards and eight touchdowns. AJ Baker, son of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, was also a big threat with 28 catches for 412 yards and four touchdowns before breaking his arm against Hobart.
“It feels a little different for me this year, because all of the guys I came up with are now graduated. I feel like an old man,” Reynolds said. “I just want to lead by example. We had an excellent passing attack last year, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t have another good passing game this year.”
One of the biggest graduation losses for Union was tailback Darnel Thomas, the Liberty League’s top rusher with 1,102 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 25 passes for 167 yards.
“Darnel could do everything for us. He could run inside, run outside, catch and block. Plus, he was very smart and knew the entire offense,” Audino said. “But we have Connor Kinzelmann back, and he was a fabulous kickoff returner for us. In fact, he led the league in kickoff returns. He will get time in the backfield this year.”
Audino said his special teams are solid with kicker David Pope (6-for-9 in field goals) and punter Tyler Barnes (35.9 average) back, along with all of the Dutchmen’s leading return men.
Defensively, Union returns seven starters, including a strong group of linebackers led by seniors Nick Littas and Thomas Hayes (74 tackles). Defensive end Jake LaRovera (team-best 92 tackles and two interceptions) is another key player still on the roster.
“I don’t feel pressure in what we have to do this year to turn things around. It’s an exciting challenge for me,” Audino said. “I am as competitive as anyone, and to have the kinds of seasons we’ve had over the last two years has been extremely frustrating for all of us. But we’ve gone through some major changes in the offseason. We’ve done a much better job of conditioning, weight training and lifting. The key for us this year is to put the hammer down in the fourth quarter of games.”
SEPTEMBER — 5, ITHACA, 1; 12, at Western Connecticut State, 6; 19, at Western New England, 1; 26, ST. LAWRENCE, 1.
OCTOBER — 3, at Springfield, 12; 10, WPI, 1:30; 24, at Rochester, 12:05; 31, HOBART, 12.
NOVEMBER — 7, at U.S. Merchant Marine, 12; 14, RPI, 12.
Home games in CAPS.