BY JAKE OSWALT
The difference between a good team and a great team is late-game execution and the ability to finish. That is the next step the Red Flash must take to become one of the elite teams in the Northeast Conference.
That was evident Saturday afternoon at DeGol Field before a homecoming crowd of 1,931 after Wagner edged St. Francis, 31-24.
“We squandered away the opportunities,” St. Francis head coach Chris Villarrial said after his team fell to 3-5, 2-3 in the NEC. “That’s the frustrating part as a coach, when you don’t capitalize on the opportunities our defense gave us late in the game.”
Wagner (4-3, 4-1) took the early lead on their first possession of the game. They set the tone with 10 of their first 11 plays being running plays, grinding six minutes off the clock on the 69-yard drive. The Seahawks converted both third-down conversions, something St. Francis could not do in the first half. Dominique Williams capped the drive on a 10-yard touchdown run. David Lopez converted the extra-point for a 7-0 Wagner lead.
St. Francis got the ball back in the second quarter. On the first play of the drive, running back Anthony Abeid took the direct snap out of the wildcat formation and handed it off to quarterback John Kelly on a jet sweep. Kelly continued running to his right, set up to pass, and found A.J. Alexander behind the Wagner secondary for a 60-yard touchdown to tie the game at seven.
“That’s something we’ve been waiting to use all season,” said Kelly. “We have the jet sweep out of the wildcat. It was just a good play by A.J. to get under it behind the defenders.”
A crucial offsides penalty by St. Francis on the ensuing kickoff changed the complexion of the quarter. Instead of having the ball at the own 20-yard line on the return, St. Francis kicked again. Otis Wright took the kickoff and raced to his left for a 60-yard return to the Red Flash 28-yard line. The Seahawks did not waste any time by scoring on the first play after the back-breaking return. Quarterback Nick Doscher faked a handoff, pump faked a bubble screen, and found 6-foot-4 receiver David Crawford in the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead. The two touchdowns were scored 33 seconds apart.
“We had a lot of dumb penalties,” Villarrial said after St. Francis was called for eight penalties for 76 yards.
Wagner got the ball back and chewed more than seven minutes off the clock. They settled for a 34-yard Lopez field goal with 1:37 left in the half.
St. Francis responded with a field goal drive of its own before the half. The Red Flash converted a third down and fourth down in order for Josh Thiel to nail a 43-yard field goal at the buzzer to narrow the Wagner lead to 17-10 at the half.
Both Wagner and St. Francis scored touchdowns on their first two drives of the second half. Wagner struck first on a Doscher 6-yard touchdown pass to Williams, who finished with 93 rushing and 43 receiving yards and two touchdowns. St. Francis answered with a Keion Wade 12-yard rushing touchdown, capping a 10-play, 77-yard drive. Wagner followed with a Doscher to Darnell Sapps 12-yard touchdown pass on a crossing pattern. Doscher finished 12 of 17 passing for 163 yards and a touchdown. St. Francis went 81 yards on 12 plays to close within a touchdown with 10 minutes left in the game. Kelly followed his running back and pulling guard in for a 7-yard touchdown run. Kelly finished with 110 rushing and 157 passing yards on the day.
“The guys up front did a great job today,” Kelly said about his offensive line that cleared the way for 196 rushing yards.
St. Francis forced two consecutive three-and-outs, but could not convert on offense on their last two drives. The final blow was a third and seven from their own 38-yard line when Kelly was stripped of the ball and sacked for a 21-yard loss. St. Francis had to punt and Wagner ran for a first down to run out the clock and preserve the victory.
“On defense, we made some good adjustments,” Villarrial said.
“I was very happy with our running game, which has been our strength all year. We have to find ways to get the ball downfield through the air. I thought John (Kelly) did very well today. He gave us a chance to win. We didn’t capitalize on their mistakes.”
“It’s a tough one,” Kelly said. “We came up a little bit short. We didn’t execute on certain plays towards the end of the game. We had the ball, had the chance to go down and punch it in. A few little errors and we weren’t able to do that.”
The Red Flash hit the road for their next two games at Central Connecticut State and Monmouth. They return home Nov. 17 vs. Sacred Heart for a noon kickoff time.