By Brian Willwerth
WALTHAM, MA – Whenever you get a juicy matchup like this – the top two teams in the Northeast 10 Conference with identical 5-0 records – you often ask yourself the question: can the game live up to all the hype? This one sure did.
In a hard-fought, hard-hitting defensive battle, No. 5 New Haven defeated Bentley on Saturday afternoon, 17-13. With the win, the Chargers take over sole possession of first place in the conference. A lot of so-called pundits may have thought this would end up being a shootout. But the opposite turned out to be true.
After a scoreless first quarter, UNH got on to the board first when Ronnie Nelson threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Jason Thompson to give the Chargers the lead.
There was some talk going into this game whether Nelson would get the start, since Ryan Osiecki was considered available after missing the last three games with an injury. But Nelson went the distance on Saturday against the Falcons.
UNH increased its lead to 14-0 when Victor Jones ran it in almost untouched from five yards out.
While that was going on, the Chargers’ defense was making life miserable for Bentley quarterback Danny Guadagnoli. He was under pressure for much of the afternoon. He was sacked four times. And the Falcons were unable to generate any offense in the first 30 minutes of play. In fact, Bentley had a net of 50 total yards in the first half, including minus-14 on the ground.
“Our guys played really well,” said New Haven head coach Peter Rossomando. “Other than a couple of drives that were aided by a couple of penalties, but other than that we played very well defensively.”
In the second half, Bentley saw the first of two key plays that it will likely look back on and think, “what might have been.” On third-and-goal from the 4, Mike Sumrell fumbled, and New Haven’s Matthew Fallico recovered at the 2 to stop that scoring threat.
But later in the third quarter, momentum started shifting to the home team. A resilient Guadagnoli capped a seven-play, 56-yard drive with a two-yard scoring pass to Jeff Hill, who made the grab in the end zone despite defensive pass interference. All of a sudden, it was a one-score game.
The plot thickened in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers’ Chris Scifo missed a 26-yard field goal that would’ve made it a two-score game again. Bentley took over, and marched right down the field. Guadagnoli found Bill Kiley in the left corner of the end zone to pull the Falcons to within a point, and electrify the Family Weekend crowd of 3,571.
But then came the second key miscue for the Falcons. Will Lockwood missed the extra point wide-left. So the home team still trailed by one.
When the Chargers got the ball back, they marched 56 yards and, more importantly, took more than five minutes off the clock. Scifo atoned for his miss by nailing a 30-yard FG to make it 17-13.
Bentley had one last shot, needing to go 75 yards in 1:32 for the win. But the Falcons couldn’t move the ball, and UNH’s fourth sack of Guadagnoli sealed the deal on an impressive defensive performance by the Chargers.
“They fly to the ball,” said Rossomando of his team’s defensive effort. “We got them out of the option, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do: put the ball in [Guadagnoli’s] hands, and take it out of those running backs’ hands. And we did that.”
“He almost beat us, but we did it,” he joked.
The Falcons’ defense was just as impressive.
Consider this: New Haven came in averaging more than 44 points a game. Bentley held them to 17. The Falcons limited UNH to 288 total yards, far below the Chargers’ season average. Bentley also forced three turnovers. But in the end, it wasn’t enough.
New Haven travels to Stonehill on Thursday night for a nationally televised game, while Bentley has another big game next weekend, against American International College in Springfield.