UNION – SUNY Cortland scored 17 unanswered points in the first quarter en-route to defeating host Kean University in the season opener for both teams on Saturday afternoon at Kean Alumni Stadium.
In the New Jersey Athletic Conference game for both teams, sophomore Justin Autera had 227 all-purpose yards for the NJAC preseason favorite Red Dragons (1-0, 1-0 NJAC), including an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the game.
For the Cougars (0-1, 0-1 NJAC), freshman outside linebacker Jerelle Peay made a game-high 11 tackles and junior safety Jamahl Williams had nine stops and a forced fumble.
After Autera returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown for the early 7-0 lead just 14 seconds into the game, the Red Dragon defense forced Kean to punt on its first three possessions, and the Cortland offense capitalized by scoring on its next two chances for the 17-0 advantage in the opening quarter.
The Red Dragons extended the lead to 14-0 when quarterback Dan Pitcher completed the 18-yard touchdown pass to Autera, capping the nine-play, 75-yard drive. On the drive, Pitcher completed 3-of-4 passes for 57 yards, including a 28-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Kadeem Miller to move the ball into Cougar territory.
Cortland forced the Cougars into a three-and -out and subsequently moved the ball inside the red-zone before settling for the 33-yard field goal by junior Marc Corrado to push the lead to 17-0 with 1:55 left in the opening quarter.
The Cougars were finally able to get on the board with 4:07 remaining in the second quarter, as junior quarterback Thomas D’Ambrisi completed 6-of-7 passes for 70 yards, including the eight-yard touchdown pass to junior Louis Haynes to trim the Cortland lead to 17-6 after the failed extra point attempt. Senior running back Jay Gwaltney contributed a pair of rushes for 13 yards, while adding a 20-yard reception to set-up first and goal for the Cougars.
In the second half, the two teams first exchanged fumbles and then punts, before the Cougars were able to pull within five points late in the quarter.
After a Red Dragon punt gave the Cougars the ball at their own 36-yard line with just under seven minutes left in the half, Gwaltney had back to back rushes for the Cougars to move the ball out near midfield at their own 47-yard line.
D’Ambrisi followed with two straight completions to senior tight end Matt Puorro, first for 22 yards and then for 14 yards to give the Cougars a new set of downs at the Cortland 22-yard line. A D’Ambrisi rush for seven yards moved the ball inside the red zone, before D’Ambrisi and Gwaltney (pictured left) connected on the 15-yard touchdown reception, pulling the Cougars to within 17-12 following the failed two-point conversion attempt.
The Red Dragons opened the fourth quarter with a 41-yard punt by sophomore Pete Furey that pinned the Cougars inside the 10-yard line. Four plays later, the Cougars were forced to punt with Autera receiving the Billy Daniels’ kick at the Cortland 40-yard line that he returned 55 yards before being tackled by Daniels at the Kean five-yard line.
On the subsequent drive, Sair rushed the ball twice to get the ball to the one-yard line, before the Kean defense held the line on third down and Sair never fully controlled the handoff on fourth-down to give the Cougars the touchback and a much-needed stop.
On the next Kean possession, the Cougars moved the ball out near midfield before senior defensive back Joe Lopez intercepted the D’Ambrisi pass along the sideline, returning the ball seven yards to the Kean 37-yard line. Four plays later, Autera scored his third touchdown of the day with the 12-yard run to extend the lead to 24-12 after the Corrado extra point.
The Cougars again had the ball near midfield with five minutes remaining, when Lopez intercepted his second D’Ambrisi pass, this time at the Kean 15-yard line before returning the ball 21 yards.
Kean forced the Red Dragons to punt after three plays, however on the ensuring Kean possession, the D’Ambrisi pass was tipped by junior Cody Allen and intercepted by Bill Smith to end the Cougar threat with less than three minutes remaining, as the Red Dragons were able to record a final first down before running out the clock.
Sair carried the ball 21 times for 77 yards, while Pitcher completed 11-of-20 passes for 179 yards and one touchdown. Autera, who had a rushing touchdown, touchdown reception and kickoff return for a touchdown, finished with 10 carries for 47 yards, three receptions for 36 yards and had 144 yards on returns.
For the Cougars, Gwaltney finished with 77 yards rushing on 17 carries, while also adding three receptions for 38 yards and one touchdown. Haynes and Puorro each had six receptions for 66 and 61 yards, respectively, as D’Ambrisi completed 19-of-29 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensively, Allen finished with 10 tackles, with Smith making eight stops and one interception in the victory for Cortland. Lopez added four tackles, two interceptions, one fumble recovery and one pass break-up for the Red Dragons.
The Cougars are on the road for their next two NJAC contests, first traveling to Morrisville State College on Saturday, September 18. Kickoff is set for Noon.
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