Big plays lead Pioneers to season-opening win

Pat Rivers
Asst. Sports Editor

The Utica College football team kicked off its 2015 campaign at home against Misericordia University on Saturday. The Pioneers defeated the visiting Cougars 42-28, marking their seventh consecutive victory in the season opener.

September 11
Photo by Issatou Fall

The Pioneers expected nothing less than an easy victory coming into the game, considering they beat the Cougars 55-0 last season. Although the Pioneers 2014 season ended in a loss, head coach Blaise Faggiano was very pleased with the season overall.
“The players should be very proud to be able to always say, that not only were they the first program in school history to win seven games but also the first to play in the post-season,” he said. “There are 240 teams in Division III football, and of those 240, only 44 teams make it to the playoffs. That’s a huge achievement.”
Having accomplished those goals, the Pioneers’ objective shifts to winning an Empire 8 championship. After Saturday’s win, they are one game closer to accomplishing that goal.
Junior running back Nicodemus Gambill played the best game of his UC career. He opened up the scoring for the Pioneers with a 50-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter. He finished with ten carries for 78 yards to accompany his one touchdown. His counterpart, junior captain Ryan Burnett, also had a career game, recording 108 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown.
Junior Jerred Beniquez made the play of the day, less than three minutes into the second quarter. Following a Misericordia touchdown, Beniquez received the ensuing kickoff on his own ten-yard line. After about 90 yards of running, juking, cutting, weaving, and leaping, the Pioneers were celebrating another score of their own. The school record 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave UC a 21-7 lead.
Junior Teddy Van Galen played a beyond sufficient game for his first career start, throwing for over 260 yards on 25 attempts, to go along with one 62-yard touchdown pass to senior captain Greg Palmer. The 62-yard connection from Van Galen to Palmer, and Beniquez’ 90-yard return were extremely momentous for UC and they never looked back.
Palmer and Beniquez were no strangers to making big plays against Misericordia. Last year, Palmer caught a 57-yard touchdown pass against the Cougars and Beniquez also had an 80-yard touchdown reception in that game.
Junior Juwan Wilson led the defense in tackles on the day with 11, followed by Nick Woodman and Isaiah Washington, who each recorded six.
Woodman also added 1.5 sacks on the day, which gave him a share of the career sack record at UC with 18. Woodman is nothing short of a relentless pass rusher, and his efforts on the defensive line significantly reflected on the secondary as they only allowed 89 total passing yards for the game.
The passing attack for Misericordia was not very sufficient, but they had a pretty good day on the ground. The Cougars gained 242 rushing yards on the night to go along with four touchdowns. Senior quarterback Jeff Puckett accounted for 84 percent of those yards and all of their touchdowns. He ended the day as the lone bright spot for Misericordia as he finished with 32 carries for 204 yards.
Thomas Woodburn, UC’s all-time leader in field goals made, added to his career total with two field goals made. A 20-yard boot at the end of the first half and a 33-yarder early in the third quarter to kick-off the second half highlighted a perfect kicking day from Woodburn.
The Pioneers look to continue their success next week on the road, as they will make the journey to Ohio to face Ohio Northern University on Saturday at Noon.