SCHENECTADY – Union College’s unbeaten football team avoided the classic “trap-game” syndrome by turning to plans B and C.
After already wrapping up at least a share of the Liberty League title and an automatic NCAA playoff berth with a huge win over Ithaca last week, Union also couldn’t help looking ahead to next week’s historic rivalry with RPI for the Dutchman’s Shoes trophy. The Dutchmen needed to avoid an upset this week against non-conference opponent Utica College (4-5).
Union accomplished that goal by once again utilizing its depth and versatility. Two-way kicker Will Halpin kicked a pair of field goals, and Shenendehowa product Griffin Wallner, a third-string running back, helped run out the clock and set up the game-clinching drive with some hard-nosed rushing as the Dutchmen edged the Pioneers 13-7 Saturday on Frank Bailey Field.
With RPI’s 38-12 victory over Ithaca, Union (9-0) won the outright Liberty League championship. It was the first time since 2014 that the league title won’t be shared.
Union, ranked 17th in the country among Division III teams in the latest ACFA national poll, held just a 10-7 lead when the Dutchmen took over on their own 23-yard line with 12:02 left. Starting tailback Ike Irabor was nicked up and sitting on the bench. After backup Joseph Ferreira ran twice for 13 yards, Union head coach Jeff Behrman turned to the seldom-used Wallner, who became a workhorse on the final drive, running for 26 yards on 10 carries to set up Halpin’s 31-yard field goal.
The drive covered 63 yards on 17 plays and took 9:56 off the clock.
After a big kickoff return, Utica still had a chance to pull out the upset win, but QB Ryan VanGalen’s fourth-and-8 pass from the 45-yard line fell incomplete with a minute to go. Union then ran out the clock.
It was not the typical high-scoring game for the Dutchmen, who failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities in the red zone.
But Union did what it had to do in order to pull out the win.
Halpin and Wallner played key roles in the victory.
“It definitely felt great to come in and help my team,” said Halpin, who averaged 37.7 yards on his three punts to go along with his two field goals. “We knew Utica was a gritty team. Their four losses coming in were all tough losses.”
Wallner was the surprising running back Behrman turned to on his team’s game-clinching drive.
“It was a lot of fun to do everything I could to help this team. I think we did well and got the job done today with some tough yards,” Wallner said. “I had an idea I might be put in, but I didn’t have much notice. It was a great opportunity. I was all warmed up and everything. I was ready to go.”
“We did need that drive, and we have belief and faith in Griffin’s game,” Behrman said. “Griffin has showed us what he can do in practice.”
Union’s defense also excelled on a day when the Dutchmen didn’t quite have it going offensively.
“When your offense isn’t performing as good as it usually does, we’re a big family and you’ve got to help the other unit out,” said senior defensive end Vince DiCaterino from Broadalbin-Perth. “The defense picked up the offense today.”
Union failed to score three times after driving deep into Utica territory. The Dutchmen’s 20-yard field goal attempt was blocked on their first possession of the game. They drove to the Utica 22-yard line later in the first quarter, but QB Will Bellamy’s fourth-and-10 pass fell incomplete. Union also had a fourth-and-goal from the 1, but Irabor was stopped for a 2-yard loss in the third quarter.
Halpin’s 35-yard field goal gave Union a 3-0 lead with 6:42 left in the first half. Ferreira extended the lead to 10-0 on a 3-yard TD run with 3:27 remaining before intermission.
Utica sliced its deficit to 10-7 when VanGalen hit Keegan Wright with a 40-yard scoring pass with 52 seconds left in the third quarter.
“I knew [Utica] would be ready for us,” Behrman said. “They are a big, strong and physical team. We knew it would be tough. This is the first time Union has beaten them after losing to them four times.”
Behrman and the Dutchmen now turn their attention to the regular-season finale against visiting RPI in the annual Shoes game.
“It’s definitely going to be a great game. We are looking forward to it,” Wallner said.
“It’s part of the privilege of playing at RPI or Union to play in the Dutchman’s Shoes games,” said Behrman.
Utica 0 0 7 0 – 7
Union 0 10 0 3 – 13
Union – Halpin 35 FG
Union – Ferreira 3 run (Rodriguez kick)
Utica – Wright 40 pass from VanGalen (Medici kick)
Union – Halpin 31 FG
Reach Bob Weiner at [email protected] or @BobWeiner58 on Twitter.