RYAN FLYNN — Staff Writer
Twenty minutes before the opening kick, it was obvious what kind of game the Southern faithful was in store for. Jess Dow field was already coated in white and a steady stream of snow continued to fall.
The game they came to watch was far from pretty, but the Owls handled the elements as best they could, slugging out a 16-6 win over Stonehill College in what was a windy, frigid Southern homecoming.
“Well, coming out it was freezing, but I told myself I was in Bermuda,” senior captain Sam-uel Johnson said with a laugh. “You know, I got the team, we all jumped around, stayed together, and we just played through it. I think, growing up, you always want to play in a game like this, so no matter what the elements were, we were gonna play this game.”
Head Coach Rich Cavanaugh deferred on the opening coin toss, opting to let his defense see the field first. Stonehill opened the game with three runs and then threw a pass that was nearly intercepted by Johnson. Southern forced a punt and on their own opening possession opted to run the ball seven straight times before attempting their first pass, which sailed incomplete and forced a Southern punt. Early on, the upper hand went to Mother Nature.
“It was definitely difficult,” senior wide receiver Andre Privott said of dealing with the snow. “You can’t cut the way you want to, you can’t run, so you’ve got to adjust before the ball, you know, to be able to get to your blocks, get to your routes and the spots you need to get to.”
The subsequent Southern punt was downed at the Stonehill two-yard line, basically neutralizing the drive before it could get started. Stonehill went three-and-out and punted the ball Privott’s way. He caught it in stride and took it back 35 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
“Well, we already had them pinned deep,” Privott said, “so I knew I had an opportunity with a short field to run, and he kicked it right to me so I just, you know, tried to hit the outside and go.”
After the score, the teams again traded punts, and Stonehill took over on their own 36. A 15-yard facemask penalty early in the drive helped them move into Southern territory and the Skyhawks did their best to take advantage of it. Faced with a 4th-and-five on the Southern 15, Stonehill elected to go for it rather than kick a relatively short field goal in the driving snow. The decision paid off, and Stonehill converted on a seven-yard play-action pass from quarterback Jesse Hunt. They would score on a two-yard touchdown run three plays later and looked to pull even with a point after attempt.
Instead, the Southern special teams came up huge again.
Senior linebacker Gavin Nelson blocked the extra point attempt, and teammate Sam-uel Johnson was there to scoop it up. Johnson, a linebacker from Newark, N.J., ran the ball all the way back to the opposite end zone, resulting in two points for Southern. Without either team having kicked a field goal, the two had found a very unconventional way to set the score at 9-6.
After three-and-outs and punts by both teams, Southern started a drive with great field position, beginning on the Stonehill 40. Southern had yet to complete a pass, but on this drive senior quarterback Kevin Lynch hooked up with his receivers when it counted, connecting for a pair of first downs. Tailback Rashaad Slowley, who ended the day with 168 yards rushing, followed one of these throws with a great cutback run that went 20 yards for a score. After a Chris Hazelton extra point, Southern led 16-6 at the half. The stat of the day thus far: the teams had combined for eight punts, and just five completions.
The blame for this, of course, wasn’t necessarily ineffective offense, given that just one week earlier the Owls had scored 48 points in a comeback victory. The snow, which had yet to let up in the slightest, made passing in the first half appear extremely difficult and even point after attempts seemed to be an adventure.
“Well, there wasn’t a lot you could do,” head coach Rich Cavanaugh said. “We just tried to take advantage of Rashaad being the back that he is, and, you know, we felt our offensive line has done a good job all year. We were able to run the ball at times and try to pick and choose our options.”
Southern opened the third quarter with the ball and began to put together an effective drive relying solely on the run. After marching down to the Stonehill 24, Rashaad Slowley fumbled the ball, and it was picked up by Stonehill cornerback Stephan Neville. Neville began to streak down the sidelines, eyeing the one man he had to beat: quarterback Kevin Lynch. A determined Lynch refused to give up on the play and made a touchdown-saving tackle. Stonehill would come up empty on the subsequent drive, again opting to go for it on fourth down in field goal range—this time coming up empty.
The Stonehill offense began to pick it up in the fourth quarter, but the Southern defense continued to make plays when it mattered. The snow had begun to let up a bit and Stonehill began to move the ball through the air with moderate success. On this and the following drive, they would move the ball down to the Southern 19 and 30, before facing a pair of fourth downs. Stonehill went for it both times coming up empty, courtesy of a rushed throw, an incompletion and a pass broken up by senior safety Michael Escobar.
“Our defense had their back to the wall and really, they came up big,” Cavanaugh said. “There was enough time left on the clock for it to be anybody’s game. Our defense stepped it up and made plays.”
Another Southern fumble quickly gave the ball right back and with four minutes left, Stonehill again was within striking distance. They quickly moved the ball down to the Southern four-yard line. However, this time the Owls didn’t wait until 4th down to make a play. Linebacker Gavin Nelson sacked the quarterback and stripped the ball loose, and defensive end Dan Lamberton was there to recover. Nelson, from Cambridge, Mass., finished with seven tackles and a blocked extra point attempt to go along with the sack and fumble. The weather may have helped keep the scoring down early, but it was a stingy Owls D that saved the day late.
“That’s just team defense,” Johnson said. “Not one person making the play; it’s the whole defense making the play. And as long as you got eleven guys that are hungry enough to get that ball, you get them plays all the time.”
The Owls move to 7-2, and play their final game of the season Saturday, Nov. 12, when they host Merrimack.