Pat Higgins | Asst. Sports Editor
Behind a spirited effort from a defensive unit that scored 20 points before the first quarter ended, the Dukes defeated West Liberty 27-14 in their first game at Rooney Field since Aug. 31. After opening the season with a victory over Albany on the final day of August, the Red and Blue struggled to find a groove in September in which they fell to Dayton and Youngstown State and waded through the monotony of two bye weeks.
They climbed back to .500 upon their return to the Bluff on Saturday afternoon.
After the Hilltoppers intercepted a Dillon Buechel pass on the game’s opening drive and returned it to the Dukes’ 15-yard line, quarterback Dylan Potts found Tyler Tucci for a 15-yard touchdown pass to give the visitors an early 7-0 lead on the very next play.
The Dukes rebounded on defense in spectacular fashion shortly thereafter.
Senior defensive back Nick Floyd returned an interception 71 yards to paydirt to tie the game at seven with just over four minutes remaining in the first quarter. A minute and a half later, sophomore lineman Zach Zidian recovered a fumble in the end zone to give the Dukes a seven point lead. And on the final play of the first quarter, sophomore defensive end Dane O’Driscoll intercepted a pass near the line of scrimmage and scheduled his own trip to the end zone, returning it 33 yards to give the Red and Blue a 20-7 lead.
In perhaps the most tumultuous 4:09 stretch the Hilltoppers will endure all season, the Dukes’ defense set the tone early in a game in which both offenses struggled. Sophomore linebacker Christian Kuntz, who forced the fumble in the end zone and led the team with eight tackles on the day, said the defensive unit regrouped after a slow start and played together the rest of the way.
“Everybody did their job. When everybody does their job, people make plays. It’s not an individual effort,” he said. “It was fundamental assignment football, and that’s what wins football games, especially in the defensive aspect of the game. Everyone does their job, 11 guys fly to the ball [and] you win the game.”
The offense struggled to finish drives most of the afternoon. The defense’s feeding frenzy in the final minutes of the first quarter is what tipped the scales in the Dukes’ favor, because they finished with almost identical numbers in every offensive category.
Dillon Buechel struggled in his second game on the bluff. He led the offense confidently as usual, but seemed to make a bad decision here or there on throws inside Hilltopper territory. The offense did manage to put some points on the board under two minutes into the second half when Buechel found sophomore wide receiver Chris King on a post flag route in the corner of the end zone to give the Red and Blue a commanding 27-7 lead.
King, who finished the game with 10 catches for 127 yards (career highs) and a touchdown, said he knew he needed to make plays when he touched the ball because the offense struggled at times.
He was able to all but seal the game for the Dukes when he snagged a pass over his left shoulder and did a little toe touching along the sidelines.
“I just knew we had to execute on offense so if the balls thrown you gotta make a play with it. I did the best I could do,” he said. “We were down in the red zone, so we just took a shot. I set the corner up for the inside and made a break outside, and it was wide open and Dylan made the perfect pass.”
Coach Jerry Schmitt, who passed Elmer Laden to become the third highest winning coach in program history with the victory, was more than pleased with the defense’s performance, picking up an offensive unit he labeled “inconsistent.”
“I’m happy for the defense cause they’ve been playing really well the last few weeks,” he said. “It may not show in the statistics, but they’ve been getting better and better, and for them to get some opportunistic turnovers, it’s good for them.”
After two losses and two bye weeks in September, Schmitt said the team is looking to get on a roll with consecutive games at home for the first time this season.
“It’s huge first of all just to play a game we know we’re gonna play next week, and the week after and the week after, that there’s no more by weeks. It was big to come back here at home,” he said.
He continued that at 2-2, the team is going to take it “one at a time” as they prepare to open their NEC schedule against Wagner this Saturday at 1:10 p.m. for the annual homecoming game.