By Matt Noonan
NORTH ANDOVER, MA – Prior to their first kickoff of the 2012 season, Merrimack College head coach John Perry knew his defense had some enormous shoes to fill due to the departures of Tony Johnson and Shawn Loiseau.
Yet, Perry and his staff managed to rebuild their defense with rising seniors, along with second and third string players from a year ago before their first contest against New Haven, a squad that’s currently ranked ninth in the Division II polls.
However, despite their early season struggles, the Warriors defense exhibited true maturity, according to Perry on Saturday, as they jumpstarted their team’s offense during the final two quarters to secure a 38-35 victory over Southern Connecticut State University.
“I was really proud of the defense,” said Perry. “I really believe this defense is coming together [and] at the end of the day, when you lose the two best defensive players in the history of this league, there’s going to be some maturity time.
“We’re still not there, but we get three and outs, and there’s times where we’re as good as any defense in the country, so we’ve just got to continue to stay at that, really keep the mindset of this play and this play only and I think we’re just going to really come together.”
Merrimack’s defense began the game the same way they did last week against American International College, as they allowed their opponent the opportunity to jump ahead after two quarters.
Southern Connecticuit produced 20 points on four consecutive first half drives, which gave them a six-point advantage at the break.
“[Mistakes] happen in football,” exclaimed Merrimack linebacker Jimmy Holland. “But we try and leave that behind us.”
The Warriors offense made some mistakes in the first half, too, but still managed to come away with 14 points, as Jimon Hill recorded his second touchdown of the season before quarterback Joe Clancy connected with Isaiah Voegeli for a 33-yard strike.
“We had a couple third downs where we had some bad throws on my part,” Clancy said. “That stuff you’ve just got to change around, make plays and that’s what changed in the second half.”
Merrimack’s defense swung the momentum their way once the second half commenced with an Ervin Johnson interception on Southern Connecticut’s first drive of the third quarter, which led to a Nick Zwann field goal.
The Warriors then produced 21 more points on their next three possessions, which gave them 38-20 lead with 13:33 remaining in the fourth.
The Owls offense attempted to erase the deficit, but the Warriors defense forced their opponent to punt four times during the final two frames.
“We knew we had to step it up, [especially with] the way we were playing,” said Holland. “We knew if we just stayed with our assignments, played hard, we knew we’d stop them.
“We knew they were getting the ball [to start the second half], we knew that it was crucial for us to get our offense the ball and get points back on the board.”
Southern Connecticut’s defense, though, picked up the slack for their offense during the final minutes, as they scooped up two fourth quarter fumbles that resulted in two touchdowns.
The Owls then attempted an onside kick with 1:59 remaining in regulation, but kicker Devin Silverman’s kicked the ball out of play. Merrimack took over with 1:57 remaining and ran out the clock with two back-to-back kneels, which sealed the victory, along with the team’s first Northeast-10 conference win, too.
“We knew that we could play definitely a better half than we did in the first,” Clancy said of his team’s second half performance. “[Today’s game] came down to playmaking and we’ve lost games earlier this season because we weren’t making plays and time mattered and today we did.
“Defense played incredible [in the] second half, I can’t say enough about how they played and [our] offense did enough and we played well and made plays.”