HUNTINGDON, Pa. – Junior Scott Andrews' 18-yard field goal with 2.9 seconds remaining in the game lifted Juniata College to a 17-16 Centennial Conference football win over Susquehanna University, Saturday afternoon at Knox Stadium.
That's the nuts-and-bolts of a win that Juniata's Tim Launtz had been dreaming about since he was named the Eagles' head coach on March 2, and his seniors had been striving after for four years.
A victory over the archrival Crusaders, and the return of The Goalpost – a chunk of the upright from Stagg Field in Selinsgrove brought back to Huntingdon after Juniata's 1952 win over Susquehanna, and the 58-year symbol of the rivalry between the Eagles and the Crusaders.
But as Andrews' (Hollidaysburg, Pa./Altoona Area) kick split the uprights at the east endzone of Knox Stadium, there was greater significance than just a win for Launtz and his Eagles.
Juniata (1-9, 1-8 Centennial) rallied from a 13-0 halftime deficit, outscoring Susquehanna 17-3 in the second half through some grit and gutsy play calls, in a come-from-behind victory that ended the Eagles' 21-game winless streak and marked Juniata's first win over its rival since 2006.
"Wow," was all a teary-eyed Launtz could muster as an initial reaction when he spoke with the media following the game, still wearing a gray sweatshirt soaked when he was doused with the Juniata water cooler. "This win wasn't about me, but it was about a football team that never quit and never gave up."
Freshman quarterback Ward Udinski (Doylestown, Pa./Central Bucks West) and junior receiver De'Sean Popley (Philadelphia, Pa./Acad. of the New Church) set the table for Andrews' game-winning field goal. With a 4th-and-10 at the Susquehanna 42, Udinski connected with Popley on a 39-yard pass play to give the Eagles a 1st-and-goal. The Eagles ran three rushing plays, getting the ball down to the one-yard line, before letting Andrews kick the field goal for the victory.
"That's the mark of a big-time clutch player, making a catch like that," said Launtz of Popley's grab at the Crusader three-yard line.
Juniata's game-winning drive answered Susquehanna's field goal with 2:05 showing on the game clock, which saw the Crusaders briefly grab a 16-14 lead. Starting at their own 45, Susquehanna breached the Juniata red zone on two plays: an 11-yard rush by quarterback Rich Palazzi, followed by a 34-yard hookup between Palazzi and split end Alex Patchin.
The Eagle comeback really began with Juniata's initial possession of the third quarter. Juniata embarked on a seven-play, 61-yard drive, that was rescued on a five-yard roughing the kicker call against Susquehanna's Bill Mancini on Owen Phillips' (West Chester, Pa./Downingtown West) 4th-and-4 punt attempt at the Juniata 45.
Udinski immediately took advantage of the fresh set of downs, hitting wideout Julian Valdiserri (Pittsburgh, Pa./Mt. Lebanon) on a 17-yard play to move into Susquehanna territory. A defensive pass interference call advanced the drive to the Susquehanna 16, where Zach McCaulley (Bellwood, Pa./Bellwood-Antis) ran 15 yards to the Crusader one-yard line.
McCaulley broke the plane on the next play, putting the Eagles on the scoreboard trailing 13-7 at the 11:09 mark of the third quarter.
After holding the Crusaders to three-and-out on their next possession, Juniata grabbed the lead on a five-play drive spanning 59 yards, capped by a nine-yard scoring strike from Udinski to Valdiserri with 7:02 remaining. The drive ended with the Eagles holding a 14-13 lead, after opening with a 15-yard rush up the middle by McCaulley, and a 33-yard Popley catch on the next play.
The Eagles then surprised the Crusaders with an on-side kick, which Juniata recovered at the 50 yardline to keep momentum on its side and deny Susquehanna the chance of regaining the lead on offense. However the Eagle drive stalled on an incomplete 4th-and-4 pass attempt by Udinski at the Susquehanna 26, and the Crusaders took over on downs.
Consecutive three-and-out drives resulted in Susquehanna having possession at its own 48-yard line, but the drive was short-lived. Palazzi's deep ball on the second play from scrimmage was picked off by Juniata cornerback Andrew Masullo (Bellefonte, Pa./Bellefonte) at the Eagle eight-yard line and brought out to the Juniata 31.
That drive was squashed at mid-field, and Phillips' punt into the Crusader endzone allowed Susquehanna to take over at its own 20.
The Crusaders' ensuing drive last 13 plays and marched 68 yards, eventually ending with Spencer Hotaling's 31-yard field goal attempt going wide right to leaving Juniata with a 14-13 lead with 8:20 left in the game. Each team had a pair of unproductive possessions, before Susquehanna's drive that ended with a go-ahead field goal.
Udinski finished 9-of-17 passing for 128 yards with one touchdown, and scampered for 25 yards on 11 carries. McCaulley led the ground game with 70 yards on 15 carries, while Popley hauled in 77 yards receiving on three catches. Valdiserri was Juniata's most prolific receiver with four catches totaling 32 yards. Stubbs had 30 yards on seven carries.
Juniata finished the game with 272 yards offensively, slightly trailing Susquehanna (6-4, 5-4 Centennial) with 279 yards of total offense. Most importantly, Juniata took care of the ball. The Eagles had two turnovers to the Crusaders' three, and none of Susquehanna's points came off turnovers.
Defensively, linebacker Kevin Gorman (Waverly, N.Y./Waverly Central) paced Juniata with 10 tackles, including six solo stops. Ethan Wilt (Altoona, Pa./Altoona Area) had eight tackles, while Brandon Felus (Columbia, Pa./Columbia) had seven.
Phillips logged seven punts in his final collegiate game, giving him 270 for his career – a figure that surpassed the NCAA Division III record of 264, currently held by Hiram College's Gary Sheplavy (2004-07).
But in the end, Launtz acknowledged this was a total team effort.
"Our kids understood this was a rivalry game, and a rivalry game should mean everything to you," said Launtz.
Susquehanna's Palazzi amassed 229 yards passing on 22 completions, while Greg Tellish, the Centennial's third-ranked rusher who averaged 100.6 yards per game coming into Saturday's contest, settled for 37 yards on the ground. Patchin proved to be Palazzi's best target, as he finished with nine receptions for 102 yards.
Regardless of uniform color, it was a game of emotion - the Juniata players awash in tears of joy as they celebrated the win, with the Crusaders' kneeling with dejection at the end of their season and the loss of The Goalpost. Fans of both teams clapped as the players passed through the gates of Knox Stadium, walking along side each other.
Susquehanna coach Steve Briggs laid down a challenge to the Juniata players as he delivered The Goalpost to the Eagle locker room – you played hard and won a great game, he said to the young men in blue and gold, and the Crusaders would try to match Juniata's effort on this particular Saturday to try and regain the trophy next year.
The Eagles cheered with delight at Briggs' message. Such is the stuff good rivalries are made of.
As the sun fell across Knox Stadium, the Juniata players, alumni, and parents gathered at midfield around The Goalpost, a simple, unassuming white wooden upright with brass plates listing each year's result. Orange and maroon stripes decorate the top of the post with blue and gold bands at the bottom, signifying Susquehanna's ownership of the trophy heading into Saturday's game.
Launtz watched his seniors pose around the trophy as family and girlfriends took photos, when he suddenly barked a final instruction to the young men who were holding the icon for the first time in their careers.
"Be sure to paint that thing, men," yelled Launtz. Then, with a smile, he added "the blue and gold goes on top."