Pat Higgins | Asst. Sports Editor
After falling to Sacred Heart on the road last weekend, the Dukes lost their spot in the driver’s seat to the Football Championship Series playoffs. Heading into their final conference matchup against Central Connecticut at Rooney Field, the Red and Blue needed a bevy of scenarios to go their way for an outright Northeast Conference title.
At the top of that list was a win, and the Dukes took care of business in their final game on the Bluff. They defeated the Blue Devils 24-21 to finish the year undefeated at home and clinch a share of the NEC title.
The Dukes took a 13-7 lead into halftime, but Central Connecticut threatened their title hopes in the third quarter when quarterback Nick SanGiacomo found Denzel Jones for an 8-yard touchdown pass midway through the third to take a 14-13 lead.
But redshirt freshman Dillon Buechel, who finished 22-36 for 288 yards and a touchdown on the day, found senior wideout Gianni Carter streaking down the seam with just under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter for a 66-yard touchdown pass. He then lofted a pass to his left to junior tight end Kyle Shuman on the two-point conversion to give the Dukes a 21-14 lead.
Carter finished with five catches for 111 yards and was named NEC Offensive Player of the Week following his going out party on the Bluff.
After the defense forced a three and out on the following drive, an Austin Crimmins field goal gave the Red and Blue a 24-14 lead with 3:14 to go. The Blue Devils made things a bit tense when they found paydirt with just over a minute of football left at Rooney in the 2013 season, but three points was as close as they would get.
The Dukes (6-4 overall, 4-2 NEC) clinched their 17th winning season in 20 years and their second conference title in three years, but Saturday marked the last time 11 of the program’s seniors threw on the pads on the Bluff.
Coach Jerry Schmitt, who runs a program that places a high value on character, said the conference title was bittersweet the way the tiebreakers worked out, but was especially proud of his seniors for their contributions over the course of four years.
“I tell you what every one of those kids are quality kids,” he said. “They’re not only good football players, they’re good students and people. Polite kids, great manners, and they just kept doing that here and developing as young men. [They are] humble, levelheaded. They play hard and enjoy it.”
For Gianni Carter, who recorded his fourth 100-yard game of the year in the conference finale and leads the receiving corps with 721 yards and six touchdowns heading into the season finale at Monmouth next week, finishing his career at home with a win was the ultimate goal.
“It’s crazy. I never thought I would be here,” he said. “Looking up my first day I transferred [from Montana State], I never thought I’d be a senior here. It just seemed so far away. Just getting the win on Rooney the last time I’m playing here, that’s what it’s about.”
Aside from a win of their own, the Dukes needed Robert Morris to beat Sacred Heart, Bryant to take down St. Francis on Saturday, followed by a Robert Morris victory over St. Francis this weekend for the FCS berth. Unfortunately, Kyle Harbridge and Sacred Heart (10-2 overall, 4-2 NEC) took down the Colonials (5-5 overall, 3-2 NEC) in Moon Township 42-25 and grabbed a shot at the playoffs.
All that considered, junior safety Rich Piekarski said “a champion’s a champion.”
A steady presence in the secondary behind a feisty defense that will lose only three starters next year, Piekarski was excited about the team’s end result, atop the NEC tied for first with Sacred Heart at 4-2.
“This senior class worked real hard. The goal was to let them go out the right way and just to enjoy their last game the right way,” he said. “The last time you put on shoulder pads and a helmet it’s always gonna be special.”
Piekarski added that he’s proud of the Dukes regardless.
“I’ll take a ring, I’ll take a championship wherever I can get it,” he said. “Not many people can say that they were champs, so whether it’s co-champs with two other teams [Robert Morris and Sacred Heart], we’ll take it.”