SCHENECTADY — As the stakes get higher for the undefeated Union College football team, so does the team’s robust confidence level. These guys have just the right amount of swagger.
Union (11-0), ranked 13/14 in the latest polls, travels to sixth-ranked Salisbury University for an NCAA Division III second-round tournament game at Sea Gull Stadium in Salisbury, Maryland, Saturday at noon.
The Sea Gulls (10-0) are coming off an eye-catching 83-0 first-round victory over SUNY-Maritime. Union, meanwhile, had to rally from a 21-3 halftime deficit to beat Case Western Reserve 24-21 last Saturday at home.
That dramatic come-from-behind win has the Dutchmen believing in themselves even more.
“You could tell the energy was kind of down in the first half,” Union junior quarterback Will Bellamy said after practice on Frank Bailey Field Wednesday. “But I read that we only trailed something like 200 seconds all season long. I think it was a big challenge for our football team to go in there at halftime, rebound, and come out strong in the second half.”
Bellamy denied there were any jitters for the Dutchmen, none of whom have ever played in the NCAA tournament before.
“Sure, I think the stakes are higher now, but we’ve got a very even-keeled football team,” Bellamy said. “We didn’t come out firing like we usually do. We looked at ourselves in the mirror this week so we won’t do the same thing this time.”
One of the heroes last week was senior wideout Griffin Beal, named the Liberty League’s offensive player of the week. Beal caught 10 passes, including two touchdown strikes, and added a two-point conversion in the second half to clinch the win. As the team’s possession receiver, Beal leads the Dutchmen in receptions with 56 for 626 yards and four touchdowns. For his career, Beal has 148 catches for 1,791 yards and 15 TDs.
“It means a lot to me to have that kind of game when we really needed it. I’m speaking for all the seniors, too,” Beal said. “We didn’t want it to be the last game of our careers, especially with it being on Frank Bailey Field. Coach [Jeff Behrman] put a lot of plays in when the ball was in my hands. Plus, Will made some amazing throws. I just ran my plays, and the ball was always right there.”
Beal echoed Bellamy’s statements that the Dutchmen weren’t overwhelmed by their situation in last week’s game.
“We knew we had the capability of coming back,” he said. “In the first half, we came out slow, but we weren’t down emotionally at halftime. We put everything into perspective. We know how capable we are on offense, and we knew our defense would play great and shut them down in the second half.
“We definitely have great chemistry on this team. Our offensive guys hang out with the defense, both at practice and outside of football. We all like each other.”
Behrman respects the Sea Gulls after watching plenty of game film on them.
“Even if you throw out their last score of 83-0, they are still averaging 50 points a game, and they are ranked sixth in the country,” Behrman said. “They are explosive on offense. They have very good personnel. They are big, strong and athletic. They present a lot of challenges from our defensive perspective. Flip it over, and our offense will be challenged by their defense, which is a veteran group. They are very physical with their front seven, and their back-end guys run to the ball very well.”
Salisbury rushed for 346 yards per game and is led by sophomore quarterback Jack Lanham with 653 yards and 11 TDs. Mike-Ryan Mofor is next with 526 yards and 12 TDs, while five other running backs have at least 275 yards on the ground. Lanham has put the ball in the air only 85 times, completing 48 passes for 1,058 yards and 10 scores.
Patrick Bernardo tops the Sea Gulls in tackles (81), and Sean Carroll has three interceptions.
Union’s high-octane offense is paced by Liberty League Offensive Player of the Year Ike Irabor, a sophomore tailback who has 1,163 rushing yards and 15 TDs on the ground. Bellamy has completed 153 of 238 passes for 2,175 yards and 21 TDs. He’s been intercepted only four times. Sophomore Andre Ross Jr. is the team’s big-play receiver with 40 catches for 803 yards and 10 TDs.
Defensively, Colin Lama leads in total tackles with 90. Joe Vanderhoof paces the Dutchmen in interceptions with six, while Daniel Gioioso has nine sacks.
Behrman said he is never surprised by this team’s poise on both sides of the ball.
“I think our senior leadership in the locker room really stepped up at halftime of our last game. Everybody was very calm and relaxed. The guys made the right adjustments, and they came out and played football until the game ended,” he said. “Everyone on our team leads by themselves. We always tell them that they must lead themselves first. The natural leaders come out during the season. We have those kinds of guys.”
But Behrman added that the Dutchmen can’t afford another slow start against the Sea Gulls.
“We can’t play a first half like we did this past Saturday against Salisbury,” Behrman said. “We will be playing in their place. We have to be smart, play disciplined football, and execute at a very high level to win.”