SCHENECTADY — Two deep balls were overthrown.
One was badly underthrown.
Then like the tumblers of a lock finally clicking into place, the Union passing game found the winning combination in the second half.
Trailing 21-3 at halftime, the Dutchmen (11-0) came back to defeat Case Western Reserve 24-21 in the first round of the 32-team NCAA Division III football tournament at Frank Bailey Field.
Quarterback Will Bellamy threw two touchdown passes to senior Griffin Beal during the comeback, and hit sophomore Andre Ross Jr. for the game-winner from 36 yards out with 4:48 left in the game.
The Dutchmen advanced to the second round at Salisbury (Maryland), an 83-0 winner over SUNY-Maritime.
A variety of adjustments in the second half led to Union's victory, none more important than the passing game getting on track on a day when running back Ike Irabor was held in check. After a 4-for-9 first half with an interception, Bellamy was 13-for-20 for 174 yards and the three scores in the second.
"What a great college football game," Union head coach Jeff Behrman said. "They [CWR] were terrific, and they were who we expected them to be. As we say, don't scoreboard-watch, just play the game. Play the play. Look at the scoreboard at the end of the game, and that's what did."
"It's a different feeling in that we've never been down like that all season, but we knew what we had to do and kept our heads up," Ross said. "Nobody was down."
"Our goal is to compete at a national level, and we had the opportunity to do that," CWR head coach Greg Debeljak said. "Union's a great program. I'm going to be upset, and it certainly was one we could've won. I don't want to say we should've won, but we could've won and let it get away. So that'll sting for awhile."
The comeback started not with an offensive breakthrough, but a defensive one.
Union stalled on two drives to start the third quarter, then senior defensive lineman sacked CWR quarterback Drew Saxton on the first play after a punt, sending Saxton to the sideline.
Two plays later, the Dutchmen flushed backup Ryan Coolidge out of the pocket, and Vincenzo DiCaterino stripped the ball for a fumble recovered by Evan Gilland at the Spartans' 31. Two plays later, Bellamy found Beal in the end zone to cut it to 21-10.
"That was huge for us," DiCaterino said. "We came out after halftime and knew we needed to put pressure. We had no sacks, no QB pressures in the first half. But the biggest thing for us was keeping our heads up and keep doing what we've been doing all year. Once we got those couple plays, I think the offense took that momentum, and that's what really carried us into the end."
Beal caught another touchdown pass with 10:35 left in the fourth quarter to get the Dutchmen within 21-16.
The Spartans were able to drive down to the Union 19, but DJ Martin got a hand on a field goal attempt to preserve the 21-16 margin.
The Dutchmen started that possession with a 10-yard holding penalty back to the 10, but scored nine plays later on a 36-yard post corner to Ross. Beal caught the two-point conversion for a 24-21 Union lead.
"He [Bellamy] played a much better second half, for sure, and stepped up and made the plays he needed to play," Behrman said. "We went to some different formations in the second half that would not give us the roll coverages and the hard corners. Griffin and Andre made the plays down the field when we needed them to."
"They're very balanced," Debeljak said. "That's the thing that stood out from Jeff and his staff. Their tailback was the player of the year in their league, but their receiver [Ross] is just as deadly."
CWR's went four-and-out on the next possession that ended with a Daniel Gioioso sack on fourth-and-long with less than two minutes left. Union gave it back on downs while killing clock, and the Spartans couldn't do anything with 41 seconds left, as Gioioso got another sack.
Spartans wide receiver Colt Morgan was unstoppable in the first half, with 11 catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns, but saw more double coverage in the second half and finished with 14 catches for 175 yards.
"Things aren't going to be perfect every time," Behrman said. "That's why we don't watch the scoreboard, just keep playing."
"I can speak for all our seniors, we weren't going to let this be our last game, especially at home," Beal said.
CWRU 0 21 0 0 — 21
Union 0 3 7 14 — 24
CWR — Morgan 30 pass from Saxton (Albrecht kick).
CWR — Morgan 15 pass from Saxton (Albrecht kick).
U — Halpin 22 FG.
CWR — Day 3 run (Albrecht kick).
U — Beal 17 pass from Bellamy (Halpin).
U — Beal 16 pass from Bellamy (pass failed).
U — Ross 36 pass from Bellamy (Beal pass from Bellamy).
GROVE CITY 41, RPI 38
Cody Gustafson caught his third touchdown pass of the game with 57 seconds remaining in regulation, and Grove City College held off the RPI football team to win the ECAC James Lynah Bowl at Robert E. Thorn Field.
The Engineers finished the season at 6-5.
Trailing by four points when it got the ball with 5:30 to play in the fourth quarter, Grove City (9-2) drove 75 yards on 11 plays in 4:33.
Running back Wesley Schools picked up 24 yards on seven carries and Gustafson had 41 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown that he caught around the 15-yard line and ran down the right side and into the end zone. The catch was his 13th of the game in accumulating 239 receiving yards.
RPI got the ball back at its 38 with 50 seconds remaining and went down the field on four pass completions, including an 18-yard connection from George Marinopoulos to Peter Lombardi to the Grove City 8 with three seconds remaining. The game ended on a missed field goal no time left.
RPI 7 3 14 14 — 38
Grove City 13 7 14 7 — 41