Pat Higgins | Asst. Sports Editor
The nation’s top rusher paid a visit to the Bluff this weekend, but faced a Dukes defense that’s been strong all year and helped the Dukes to a 4-3 record (2-1 NEC) heading into the matchup.
In the Red and Blue’s only night game at Rooney Field this year, the defensive unit led by senior safety Rich Piekarski and sophomore linebacker Christian Kuntz held St. Francis running back Kyle Harbridge, who’d been averaging near 173.7 yards per game prior, to 41 yards on 15 carries en route to a 21-10 victory in which the Dukes improved to 5-3 and jumped into the driver’s seat in the NEC with a conference-best 3-1 record.
St. Francis managed 131 total yards on offense in a game the Dukes controlled the whole way.
Coach Jerry Schmitt said the St. Francis bases their game plan heavily around “running the football and possessing the football,” and the Dukes were able to grab the momentum early when sophomore linebacker Sam Martello came down with a pass blocked by fellow linebacker Christian Kuntz on the third play from scrimmage.
After Dillon Buechel brought the offense from the SFU 24 to the goal line, junior running back Ryan Ho rushed in for a 1-yard score. And just like that, the Dukes led 7-0 a little over three minutes into the first quarter, forcing St. Francis to play catch-up from the start.
Piekarski led the team in tackles with seven, but Christian Kuntz recorded six of his own (three for a loss) on his way to NEC co-Defensive Player of the Week honors.
After the defense forced a punt on the following possession, Buechel led a 15-play, 87-yard drive that took just under nine minutes off the clock. Senior fullback Ethan Dorsey, who entered the game with 15 career carries, punched in the Dukes’ second score on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line eight seconds into the second quarter to give the Dukes a commanding two touchdown lead early.
After starting the game 8-8 for 81 yards in the first quarter, Buechel sailed a pass to his left over senior wideout Gianni Carter that SFU defensive back Lorenzo Jerome returned for a touchdown to make it 14-7. The Red Flash took over at the Dukes’ 18 later in the quarter after they blocked Aaron Fleck’s punt with 4:35 remaining in the first half. But the defense remained stout with their backs to the wall in their own red zone and forced a field goal to cut the lead to 14-10.
The SFU offense didn’t make it past midfield the rest of the way. Buechel found sophomore wideout Devin Rahming for a 10-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to make it 21-10, a lead the Red Flash never really threatened in the second half – the Dukes held onto the ball for all but 8:46 in the second half.
Senior running back Jason Douglas and Ethan Dorsey chewed time off the clock in the second half after Ryan Ho went down with an injury in the first quarter, teaming for 81 yards on 24 carries.
“In the second half once we punched that third touchdown in we really got our feet under us,” Buechel said. “We were really in a good rhythm out there controlling the game. Dorsey was carrying kids the whole game.”
Dorsey, who’s traditionally been used as a blocker in his three and a half years on the Bluff, finished with 20 rushes for 65 yards. But he chalked this one up to another strong defensive effort.
“We came out fired up and our defense played phenomenal today,” he said. “Our defense just kept us in it and we fed off their momentum, and we just kept grinding down the field and running off the clock, and it worked out for us.”
Named to a 20-player watch list for the Jerry Rice Award given to the nation’s top freshman in early October, Buechel said the team’s effort on the other side of the ball is nothing new.
“They’ve been huge these last few games and all year,” he said. “In NEC conference play I’m not sure there’s been a better defense out there.”
The Dukes saw their three-game winning streak snapped in Rhode Island last week. Coming off a 42-7 loss on the road against NEC rival Bryant in which the Bulldogs exploded for 35 points in the second half, Schmitt said he was proud of the way his team bounced back in the thick of their conference schedule.
“You get to this point and it’s hard cause you do the same things over and over. You need some momentum,” he said. “Last week took it out of us a little but, I’m impressed with the players, with the team. The guys, the way they came back off of last week, they just went back to work this week and went after this game.”
With the victory, the Dukes grabbed sole possession of first place in the conference at 3-1. They’ll travel to Sacred Heart (8-2 overall, 2-2 NEC) to take on the Pioneers at noon on Saturday, a game that will be broadcast on ESPN3. With two games left in their conference schedule, they control their destiny the rest of the way.
That said, Kuntz stressed that the team isn’t getting ahead of itself and remains focused solely on their next game.
“This [win] is just huge,” he said. “We’re not really worried about what anybody else does, we just gotta win out and do our thing and everything will fall into place. That’s all we can ask for.”