Back from the brink
Football stages epic comeback to remain unbeaten
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The ball bounced on the turf and third-year student Justin McMahon saw his chance to rescue the season.
The linebacker pounced on the fumble at the three yard line, stopping Westminster College’s golden opportunity to win the game in the final seconds. The Case Western Reserve University football team came out on top with a 26-22 victory, keeping their playoff dreams and undefeated season alive. Only one more opponent can keep the Spartans from a perfect regular season: arch-rival Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).
Earlier in the game it looked like those same dreams had ended. The team faced a 19-point deficit late in the third quarter, but they did not give up hope. Head Coach Greg Debeljak said, “Everybody hung together and supported each other even when things went bad. Everybody just kept it together and knew that eventually we would get things going….It was as much a cultural win as it was a win on the field.”
With just four and a half minutes left in the game, third-year student and fullback Jacob Burke ran up the middle for a one-yard touchdown to give the Spartans their first and only lead. It capped an eight play 70-yard drive led by third-year quarterback Rob Cuda. First-year tight end Adam Zybko had two of his four catches during that drive, a surprise given he only had one reception all year.
“[He] was a big, big boost to us in giving us what he did, because he’s a matchup problem with that they were doing on defense.” said Debeljak. The Titans’ corners were very physical with the CWRU wide receivers, but Zybko, listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 210 pounds, was able to use his size to break free and get open.
The game got off to an inauspicious start for CWRU’s vaunted offense. On their opening drive, a snap sailed over their punter’s head all the way to the back of the end zone for a safety. On the first play of the next drive, Cuda threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. The Titans had an early 9-0 lead, and the Spartans defense was responsible for none of the points.
The CWRU offense simply could not find their rhythm in the first half as they were held scoreless in a half for the first time all season. The main reason for their struggles was Cuda’s health. He did not practice all week, and his rust showed early in the game. The quarterback’s timing was off, as he did not seem in synch with the rest of the offense.
Late in the half, the Titans found the end zone with their offense, scoring on a 45-yard run. When the two teams went to the locker rooms for halftime CWRU found themselves down 15-0.
The Spartans managed a field goal on their first drive after the break, but gave up a touchdown late in the third quarter. It was then that the comeback began.
It all started with the defense. It was important that the defense hold their ground and not allow the Titans to score. They responded as well as anyone could have hoped. The unit forced three turnovers (two fumbles and one interception) in the half and only gave up the seven points. Said Debeljak: “They bent sometimes, but they came up with key stops and turnovers when they had to.”
First-year student and safety Patrick Crossey, who was named University Athletic Association (UAA) Defensive Player of the Week and the Presidents’ Athletic Conference (PAC) Rookie of the Week for his strong performance, led the defensive surge. He recorded a career-high, team-leading 13 tackles and also forced one of the fumbles.
Other defensive standouts include fourth-year cornerback Nick Kwon (six tackles, one interception), second-year cornerback Daniel Fabiniak (10 tackles, one interception) and first-year linebacker Isaac Withrow (five tackles). Both Kwon and Fabiniak have been stellar all year, while Withrow was a relative unknown coming into the game. Needing to play a more pivotal role because of injuries to other starters, he rose to the occasion.
The offense found their rhythm in the second half. Cuda was completing passes left and right and Burke was running well. The first score was a 24-yard pass from Cuda to second-year student and wide receiver Justin Phan. With a completed two-point conversion, the deficit dropped to 11.
Early in the fourth quarter, Cuda found fourth-year student and wide receiver Brendan Lynch in the end zone to cut the Titan lead to five. Another successful two-point conversion, this time on a running play, changed the score to 22-19 in favor of the Titans. CWRU was just a field goal away from tying the game with over nine minutes left in the game.
But they did not settle for a measly field goal. The Spartans drove down the field and Burke punched the ball into the end zone, capping off the comeback. All in all, CWRU scored 23 unanswered points to seal the deal.
Tomorrow, Nov. 12, the Spartans take on CMU (6-3, 5-2 PAC) in a key PAC and UAA matchup at 2 p.m. With a win, CWRU clinches a share of the PAC title, their first, and the outright UAA title. Including last year’s loss, the Spartans have won eight of the last nine matchups between the two schools. It’s the Spartans last home game of the season, so 13 graduating fourth-year students will be recognized as part of Senior Day.