By Ryan Barry (@TheRealRBarry)
Sometimes the best rivalries in college football are those that don’t have an official name. For Duquesne and Sacred Heart, two smaller private Catholic schools in the Northeast Conference, it’s clear there is little love lost when these two line up on the gridiron.
The recent turbulent history between these two schools played out just as expected on Saturday afternoon in Fairfield as Sacred Heart (5-3) rolled past Duquesne (4-2) 31-13.
With Sacred Heart holding Family Weekend on campus, 7,327 fans packed the stands to make it the highest attended game in Campus Field history. While they were treated to a fairly lackluster first half, a commanding second half helped secure the Pioneers a third consecutive victory.
Coming into the game as the leading rusher in the FCS, running back Malik Grant didn’t disappoint with a whopping 34 carries for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Head Coach Mark Nofri, now in his 10th year with the Pioneers, had high praise for the junior running back out of the Bronx.
“It took him (Grant) a little while to get going but he continues to get better each week,” he said. “He’s a tough hard nose kid who runs downhill and I can’t be happier for him knowing how much work he puts in.”
Junior quarterback Marquez McCray managed the game incredibly well (11/16, 163 yds) and came up with a couple of huge throws to extend drives. His favorite target on the day, sophomore wide receiver Kenneth Womack, caught seven passes for 124 yards.
Duquesne won the coin toss and elected to receive, and not even a minute into the game had an early 7-0 lead thanks to a 75-yard touchdown run from graduate student Garrett Owens who took the second play from scrimmage to the house.
Sacred Heart’s first possession looked promising until a hold called back a would-be red zone completion from McCray to Womack.
The next time the Pioneers got the ball they didn’t mess around with an 8 play, 54-yard touchdown drive to even the game at 7 thanks to a 12 yard run from junior quarterback Rob McCoy (6 car, 47 yds, 1 TD), who served primarily as an RPO-style rushing QB.
A quick response from the Dukes saw freshman kicker Andrew Smith nail a 26-yard field goal to give them a 10-7 lead with 43 seconds to go in the first quarter.
For the Pioneers the second quarter didn’t go quite as planned. On their first drive after the field goal a muffed punt gave the ball right back to the Dukes deep in the red zone, though a stout defensive effort forced Andrew Smith into another 25-yard field goal to extend the lead to 13-7.
More miscues from Sacred Heart the rest of the second quarter, including two missed field goals, saw them go into the half down 13-7.
An incredible Pioneer response in the second half would see them go on to score 24 unanswered points. While the offense put the points on the board, it was the defense who shut down the Dukes the rest of the game.
After a Duquesne four and out, Malik Grant helped the Pioneers march down the field on an 7 play, 65 yard drive that ended in his first touchdown of the afternoon to take a 14-13 lead.
Another four and out for the Dukes opened the door for a consecutive Sacred Heart scoring drive, this time capped off with a three-yard touchdown run from sophomore running back Jalen Madison to increase the Pioneer lead to 21-13.
The play that felt like the final nail in the coffin for the Dukes came on a Darius Perrantes (7/16, 45 yds, 1 int) underthrown deep ball that was picked off by Pioneer strong safety Salaam Horne. Coach Nofri felt the momentum shift after Horne’s interception.
“That was huge, I think that was the turning point in the game,” he said. “When you got them (Duquesne) on their heels and you can deliver the knockout punch, I think that kind of flipped the tide.”
A field goal off the interception to give the Pioneers a 24-13 lead was followed by yet another solid defensive stand, forcing the Dukes into another four and out after a big sack by sophomore Onarjae Bonhometre.
Malik Grant would seal the deal the following drive with a one-yard touchdown run to give Sacred Heart the 31-13 lead, which they’d comfortably hold until the end of the game.
With the Pioneers now holding the head-to head tiebreaker over the Dukes going into their final three games, the pressure is on Duquesne to remain perfect and hope Sacred Heart trips up somewhere along the way, while also keeping their eyes on Bryant who are also in the mix.
The final four weeks of the NEC will be highly entertaining to see who takes the conference title and earns the lone FCS playoff spot.