by Daniel Fappiano
With two seconds remaining in the game, Duquesne’s John Domit lined up for a potential game-winning 18 yard field goal. The almost 1,500 fans at Arthur J. Rooney Athletic Field were on their feet. Domit’s kick went up and sailed wide left, giving Central Connecticut State the 28-27 victory for their first Northeast Conference Championship since 2010.
CCSU got off to a hot start against Duquesne, jumping out to a 14-point first half lead. The Blue Devils were able to move the ball on offense, reaching the Dukes’ red zone on their first five possessions. However, a 22-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Stuart to Nehari Crawford with two minutes before halftime changed the momentum in Duquesne’s favor.
After the break, Duquesne continued to dominate, scoring three more touchdowns. The Dukes scored 27 unanswered points and looked as if they were in position to win their third straight NEC championship. Although following their second touchdown of the half, Domit missed the extra point, which proved to be crucial at the end of the game.
Despite being down 13 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, quarterback Jake Dolegala and the rest of CCSU’s offense refused to give up and battled until the end.
The Blue Devils’ quarterback was able to orchestrate a seven play, 93-yard drive in which he scored on a 16 yard run play. CCSU’S defense stepped up on the next drive, forcing Duquesne to punt from their own one-yard line.
Two plays later, Dolegala completed an 18-yard screen pass to running back Cameron Nash to put the Blue Devils up 28-27 with just over two minutes remaining. Duquesne was able to march down to the Blue Devils’ three yard line before missing the field goal, sealing the win for CCSU.
Overall, Dolegala had his best game of the season, completing 21/33 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed nine times for 23 yards and an additional two touchdowns. Dolegala saw the field well and made good decisions, accounting for each of CCSU’s four touchdowns. The junior quarterback now sits just 182 yards behind Scott Dolch for the most passing yards in CCSU history.
Dolegala was overcome with emotions following the victory. “It’s unreal. We always had this goal coming into the season that we were going to be NEC champions, for that to come true, it’s a feeling like no other,” Dolegala said.
While Dolegala might have been the star against Duquesne, he knew CCSU’s ability to play as a team is what makes them special. “The way we play together, we play for one another, everybody did their job and we found a way to get it done, each and every game.”
As for the rest of the offense, Nash rushed 19 times for 90 yards. The senior running back has rushed for 863 yards and 10 touchdowns this year. He holds the third most rushing yards and is tied for most rushing touchdowns in the NEC. Junior receiver
Courtney Rush caught five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
On the defensive side of the ball, CCSU did not come away with any of the signature turnovers fans have been accustom to. This game marked the first time since their matchup against Youngstown State in which Central did not force a turnover.
However, for most of the first half the Blue Devils were able to slow a usually fantastic Duquesne offense. Prior to the Dukes touchdown right before halftime, CCSU held Duquesne to just 40 yards of total offense. In a game determined by just one point, CCSU’s early defensive play was vital.
CCSU was also able to come away with six tackles for a loss and three sacks. One of those sacks came at the hands of senior Seth Manzanares, who forced Duquesne back to their one yard line prior to their botched punt late in the fourth quarter.
As a senior, Manzanares knew this was his last chance to win a championship. “It means the world. Our team deserves this. Honestly, I’m at a loss for words right now… everyone did their part and we came out victorious and that’s how it should be. This is amazing for me, I’ve never even been close to a championship any of the seasons I’ve ever played and I can’t tell you how thankful I am for my brothers on this team.”
As for Head Coach Peter Rossomando, this victory was the pinnacle of all the hard work he’s put in at CCSU. After winning just nine total games during his first three years as Head Coach, he can now say he’s turned the Central football program around.
“It’s surreal right now, I don’t really know what to think at this point,” Rossomando said about winning the championship. “It’s been one heck of a ride since I got here, seven in a row to do it, in that fashion down 13 late, our kids never forgot and always believed. It’s great for our university, a difficult time in the state with budgets and all that stuff, it’s just great to give people something to cheer for and something to be happy about.”
With the win, Central will be going to the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs for the first time in school history. While they won the championship in 2010, they shared the title with Robert Morris, losing the tiebreaker and sending the Colonials to the tournament.
Going into the playoffs, CCSU will likely be seen as an underdog. However, Rossomando thinks that’s a position his Blue Devils can succeed from. “We’re always the underdogs, we’re used to it by now, that’s just the way it is. The good news is, when you’re in, you’re in, and anyone has a shot. Youngstown State went in as a 14th or 15th seed last year and went all the way to the National Championship. I’m not saying we’re Youngstown, but we got a chance.”
CCSU will finish their regular season against NEC foe Robert Morris as they look to go undefeated in conference play and win their eighth game on the road. Regardless of the outcome, this game against Duquesne will go down in the history books and surely won’t be forgotten as the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils are the 2017 NEC Champions.