RYAN FLYNN — Staff Writer
A fine season for the Southern Connecticut State University Owls came to a bitter end Saturday afternoon. A senior day season finale pit the 7-2 Owls against conference foe Merrimack. Southern led for much of the game, but fell 28-27 due to a late, stagnant offense and two second-half Merrimack touchdowns.
The 18 Owls seniors were honored in a ceremony prior to the game, amongst them impact players like running back Rashaad Slowley, quarterback Kevin Lynch and linebacker Sam-uel Johnson. With a win and favorable results in a few other games, Southern entered the game with the opportunity to clinch an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2008.
Southern opened the game with the ball and wasted no time hitting their first big play. Slowley took a shotgun handoff around the right end on the fourth play of the game and tightroped the sideline for 47 yards. Three plays later, Southern set up for a 41-yard field goal, but kicker Chris Hazelton missed wide left.
The Southern defense did its best to pick up the slack. Junior defensive lineman Santiago Steele sacked Merrimack quarterback James Suozzo on their opening snap. Then, following a Merrimack offsides penalty, Chevar Rankins forced a fumble. The ball was scooped up by senior cornerback Kamal Mgaresh and run back 16 yards for a Southern touchdown.
Down 7-0, Merrimack responded. Suozzo entered the game second in the Northeast-10 in rushing touchdowns behind Slowley. Stopping the running quarterback and Merrimack’s read option offense was a key for the Owls to come through with a victory.
“You’ve got to contain him,” Dan Lamberton, a defensive end from Guilford, Conn., said. “He can burn you with his arm, but if you let him out of the pocket he can run too.”
Merrimack utilized the option offense as they worked their way down the field. A 15-yard face mask penalty set them up on the Southern 25-yard line, and Suozzo connected on a touchdown pass with receiver Steve Serwon to knot the score at 7-7.
Senior wide receiver Andre Privott returned the ensuing kickoff to the 50. On the following play Lynch fumbled the ball on a scramble and Merrimack recovered. They would march down to the Owls 20-yard line before a tipped Suozzo pass was intercepted by defensive back Dion O’Joe and returned to the Merrimack 45. On the very next play, Slowley rushed around the left end and broke free for a 45-yard touchdown. He finished the game with 219 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
The teams traded punts, and Merrimack began the subsequent drive on their own 39-yard line. They moved down to the Southern 16 and gave running back Jimon Hill the ball on first down. The shifty running back broke a tackle and stayed on his feet, stumbling into the end zone to tie the score at 14. Southern would tack on another field goal, thanks to a 30-yard Kevin Lynch pass to Andre Privott. Two drives later, Southern opened on their own 35-yard line. On 3rd-and-8the Owls ran a draw play up the middle with Slowley, who burst through the hole and saw nothing but green in front of him. He ran 63 yards for the touchdown, putting Southern up 24-14. They would take this lead into the half.
Merrimack opened the second half with a promising drive to the Owls 4-yard line, but sophomore defensive lineman Mwamba Williams forced a fumble, recovered by Southern’s Dion O’Joe. Southern followed with a 50-yard second down pass from Lynch to junior wide receiver, Willie Epps. This specific drive stalled on the Merrimack 16-yard line and Southern settled for a 33-yard Hazelton field goal attempt, which he converted. The Owls now had a seemingly comfortable 27-14 lead with 9:25 remaining in the third quarter.
From here on, though, Merrimack would take control of the game. The Warriors marched down to the Owls 7-yard line. After a one yard Suozzo loss, Hill ran the ball down to the Owls 1-yard line. The Owls defense stood tall on the next two plays, forcing a turnover on downs. However, the Southern offense followed this with a 3-and-out and was forced to punt. Merrimack return man Isaiah Voegeli fielded the ball at his own 48 and caught a few key blocks as he weaved his way 46 yards downfield to the Owls 6-yard line. The Owls defense found themselves in the exact same situation they had been in just three plays earlier. This time, though, the Warriors would convert by way of a 6-yard Suozzo scramble to set the score at 27-21.
With 4:30 still left in the third quarter, the Owls lead was dwindling.
Both teams forced 3-and-outs, and Southern opened the final period with the ball on their own 38-yard-line. A 15-yard Lynch pass on third down and a 21-yard Slowley run set them up with 1st-and-10 on the Merrimack 24-yard line. A reverse to Privott was snuffed out for a 3-yard loss and two Lynch incompletions put them in a precarious position. Just on the edge of field goal range but too close to punt, head coach Rich Cavanaugh elected to go for it on 4th-and-13. Lynch found no one open, scrambled and was pushed out of bounds.
The Warriors took over on their own 29-yard line with over 12 minutes still to play in the fouth quarter. Suozzo connected on passes of 23 and 12 yards, and Hill added a 16-yard run to set them up on the Southern 9-yard-line with 1st-and-goal. The following sequence may have been the most important in the game.
On first down, Hill found no running room, gaining just a single yard. On second, Suozzo scrambled for five yards, to set up 3rd-and-goal on the Southern 3-yard-line. He again scrambled on the following play, but the run was stuffed by senior defensive lineman Ikponmwosa Igbinosun. Merrimack then took a timeout to talk over what would inevitably be the coaching decision of the game.
It was the Warriors offense that broke the huddle on the ensuing fouth down. Trailing by six with eight minutes remaining, the Warriors opted to try for a touchdown instead of taking the easy three points. Suozzo faked as if running a speed option, then stopped dead and lofted the ball into the endzone. Serwon was again there to haul it in, and a successful extra point put Merrimack up 28-27. Halfway through the fourth quarter, they’d claimed their first lead of the game.
“I think they were concerned at that point that they maybe wouldn’t get back down the field,” Cavanaugh said. “So, you know, I think that if the shoe was on the other foot, I probably would’ve went for it there too.”
Southern’s offense could not answer. They went 3-and-out and punted from their own 20. Merrimack would follow with a 14-play, nearly seven-minute drive to ice the game. They twice converted on third downs and once on a 4th-and-8, courtesy of a 9-yard Suozzo pass. When they finally did turn it over on downs, Southern found themselves on their own 20-yard-line, with just nine seconds left to play.
The final stats show that Merrimack outgained Southern in yards 446 to 365, and also won the time of possession battle, 37 minutes to just under 23.
“We just didn’t finish,” a dejected Slowley said after the game. “We gotta execute; we didn’t finish drives.”
“I think it was a very exciting season,” he said. “I thought we had a super senior class. I thought they showed a lot of leadership. We’re graduating some very fine football players that have really contributed to the success of our program over the last three or four years.”