SCHENECTADY -- Ike Irabor was "surprised to see all that green."
Union's star running back wasn't surprised to see the ball, since this was his whopping 38th carry of the game against Ithaca last Saturday. But after grinding out 143 yards on his first 37, Irabor finally had a wide-open expanse of field in front of him, and he hit the home run.
His 46-yard touchdown gave the Dutchmen their biggest victory in years, 31-21 over the No. 7/8 Bombers at Butterfield Stadium, clinching the Liberty League championship for the first time since 2011 and an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2006.
Ithaca didn't lay a finger on Irabor on that play, as he took an inside handoff from Will Bellamy, got to the right sideline and sprinted straight ahead into the end zone. It was the final touch on a masterpiece turned in by Union's offensive line, for which they were awarded d3football.com's Team of the Week national award for that position.
Riding this wave, Union (5-0, 8-0), who moved up to No. 17 on the AFCA coaches national poll, will go outside the Liberty League on Saturday to play Utica (4-4) of the Empire-8 at 1 p.m. Saturday at Frank Bailey Field. While the Dutchmen have plenty locked up for the postseason, this is no time to jump off that wave.
"We're in a pretty good spot right now, but, honestly, we shouldn't be content," Irabor said after practice on Wednesday. "We should keep working the way we have this entire year."
"We're still playing for rankings. But rankings aren't the biggest deal to us," senior defensive end Vincenzo DiCaterino said. "Our mentality is to go undefeated, something we haven't done in years. But we take it week to week, and Utica's this week."
The Pioneers have an outside shot at an ECAC Football Fest berth, having been selected to play in one of those Division III bowl games with a 6-4 record in 2017.
"They're coming off a great road win last week at Alfred," Union head coach Jeff Behrman said. "And they have a lot to play for, as a 4-4 team -- and I explained this to the team on Sunday -- they are a team that is trying to finish the season strong.
"And then, obviously, there's a target on our back. So they look at this as a great opportunity for themselves. But at the same time, it's a great opportunity for us to go out there and continue to get better as a team. We still have not played the complete game and played to our potential, from play to play."
Union played as close to that as they needed to against Ithaca last week, when the Dutchmen gave up almost 500 yards in total offense, but snagged two interceptions and a game-ending fumble recovery by DiCaterino.
"Bend but don't break [on defense]," DiCaterino said, and the offensive line gave up no sacks and was the driving force behind the well-designed and executed play that sprang Irabor for the game-deciding touchdown with 2:23 left in the game.
For that, right tackle Max Langsam, right guard Teddy Hood, center Ryan Ehrets, left guard Chris Katchadurian and left tackle Tim Driscoll earned the weekly national award from d3football.com.
"The two tackles played really well," Behrman said. "They had two defensive ends who are really good, and all of our offensive linemen played pretty well, but I thought it was a really important game for the tackles to control those guys on the edge."
"It was the offensive line. They blocked their butts off for me," Irabor said. "They made the holes, and I found the creases to get through those holes.
"Before that play, they [Ithaca] were talking to me like, 'Yeah, you can't run on us, yadda, yadda, yadda.' So I was like, alright, that whole game I was waiting for that one play to break through. Once I saw the offensive lineman get that block on the outside, I just found that, went around and I was gone."
Irabor said he was pretty tired after the game, "but pretty excited, too."
For good reason, since the Dutchmen beat mighty Bombers for the first time since 2009, in front of many happy alums who traveled to Ithaca for the game.
With that out of the way, they'll go about the business of closing out the regular season, starting with Utica.
"We didn't have any pressure on our shoulders," DiCaterino said. "I feel like it was all on them, because everyone expected them to beat us. When you come into a game like that with no pressure, you don't really think about making mistakes as much, and I feel like that's what we focused on. And we really didn't make mistakes. That was the big game-changer for us."
"We're treating this like any other week," Behrman said. "I addressed those types of issues at our team meeting on Sunday, that we don't want the letdown and we have to prepare like it's any other game. It's different, I guess. It's the first time in my 24-year career where you win the league in Week 8.
"But we've prepared this week no different than we prepared last week. We shortened the practice down a day, took the pads off just so they could be fresh when they get to Saturday. Really, just continue to do what we do and not break our routine at all."
RPI HOSTS ITHACA
Before a Nov. 16 rivalry matchup with Union, RPI hosts Ithaca at noon Saturday.
RPI (2-2, 5-3) won 28-26 last weekend against Buffalo State after dropping its previous two games. Meanwhile, the loss last weekend for No. 17/19 Ithaca (4-1, 7-1) against Union spoiled its perfect season.
RPI and Ithaca tied for the Liberty League title in 2017 and 2018. In both those seasons, RPI defeated Ithaca in the programs’ head-to-head matchups.
UALBANY HEADS TO DELAWARE
After a disappointing home loss to Maine, UAlbany football heads to Delaware for a 1 p.m. Saturday CAA matchup.
While UAlbany (3-2, 5-4) had won two consecutive games before last weekend’s loss, Delaware (2-3, 4-5) has lost four of its last five games. All-time, UAlbany is 2-6 against Delaware.
It’s likely redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Undercuffler will set another UAlbany program record this weekend. With 228 passing yards, Undercuffler will match the program’s single-season record in that category of 2,636 that belongs to current UAlbany coaching staff member Will Fiacchi. Against Maine, Undercuffler had four touchdown passes to up his season total to 28, which pushed him past Dan DiLella’s previous single-season passing touchdowns record of 25.
UAlbany heads into this weekend in fourth place in the CAA, while Delaware is in a four-way tie for seventh.