D3 football, like any level of football, is about teamwork, execution, and sometimes – lucky breaks. A team could have all the talent imaginable, but won’t win games unless said talent works together. A coaching staff can draw up beautiful plays designed to break an opponent, but said plays don’t work unless the players execute them to perfection. And, of course, sometimes it just helps to get a few breaks here and there.
Widener football provided a good example of the above in their thrilling quadruple overtime 24-21 victory over Lycoming on Saturday — a win that bumped the Pride’s record to 3-0 in the Middle Atlantic Conference, 3-1 overall.
“Lycoming is our biggest traditional rival and it was their homecoming, so the small college atmosphere there is always terrific,” Widener head coach Mike Kelly said in an exclusive interview with HERO Sports. “The weather was awful as it was simply pouring the majority of the game and conditions were far less than ideal. I’ve been in multiple overtime games before and we simply took a ‘let’s just keep playing’ approach without any panic and stayed focused.”
Coach Kelly’s squad led the game early after Donte Harrell punched in a 5-yard touchdown at the eight-minute mark. But Lycoming struck back with a TD of its own to knot the game at seven before halftime. The two squads exchanged scores in the second half, setting up the first extended period.
With the game on the line, Lycoming set up a field goal on the Widener 22. If he hits it, it's over, but it was not to be. Senior Widener defensive lineman James Rendle burst through the line and blocked the kick to set up a second OT.
“I knew we needed a big play,” Rendle said. “We had dominated most of the game, so walking out of there without a win was not an option. I saw where we aligned that the kick had to go directly over me, so I got an initial push and then just jumped with full arm extension.”
Added Kelly: “James is a good football player with a wide base and motor that runs. He made a lot of plays throughout the game as a three technique, but nothing was bigger than the blocked FG attempt. We said during the week that he would get an opportunity, and we saw some vulnerability with Lycoming’s PAT/FG unit and simply took advantage of it. But James made it happen with great effort.”
Both teams scored rushing touchdowns in the second OT, with Widener’s coming off a Chris Randle 2-yard run.
Randle finished the game with 35 rush attempts for 151 yards and two touchdowns.
“We feel good about the stable of backs we are developing here that are all in their freshman or sophomore seasons,” said coach Kelly. “We went into the game with sophomore Donte Harrell as the MAC’s leading rusher at 133 yards per game, and he was having a good first half until a hit on the sideline put himdown. Our next man up mentality then took over when Chris went in and he actually had a little better burst and hit the creases well. For a first year player, he is really providing quality carries for us, and he’s a positive player once he gets into the flow of the game. We are no huddle, but when you can also control the clock and rest your defense, it’s the way you address the totality of your in-game approach.”
Yet another scoreless period resulted in a fourth — and final — OT. On what would be the final drive of the game, Randle rushed for nine yards to set his team up Lycoming’s 16-yard line. Freshman kicker Michael Raczak stepped up and booted a 33-yard, game-winning field goal to end an exhausting, grueling contest.
“Mike is one of the most mature freshmen I’ve been around,” Kelly said. “He is very poised and doesn’t allow the moment to overwhelm him. He came out of a big time high school program at LaSalle in Philadelphia and is well prepared for pressure situations. I have tremendous confidence in every player to execute and they know that. Mike took it like it was a piece of cake.”
Rendle (pictured left) noted the difficulties in playing a 4OT game: “The team stayed motivated and we stuck to our normal plans. Usually, after normal length games I am exhausted. So we all made good use of the four-hour bus ride home after this one.”
“We controlled the clock the entire game and our defense was relatively fresh as we headed into OT which proved to be an advantage,” Kelly explained. “Motivation isn’t a problem. You’re a college football player and you have an opportunity to do something most people do not and you’re playing a traditional rival at their homecoming, no rah rah speeches needed here. Our play calling didn’t change at all. We kept executing in the manner that has proven successful in all three phases. I’m very fortunate to have the coordinators that I do in Bill Shuey defensively and Manny Matsakis offensively. There aren’t any better out there and they prepare, maintain composure, and function like the coaching veterans that they are.”
As stated, the win keeps Widener football atop the Middle Atlantic Conference, and helps ease the sting of Week 1’s disappointing 19-14 loss to Rowan.
“That Rowan game still sticks in my craw,” Kelly said. “Rowan is a good football team and well coached. I’m not going to make excuses, but we didn’t have Donte for that game and it was Chris’s first game in college (although he ran for 79 yards), two offensive lineman, and a returning all-conference receiver available for that game but the bottom line is we didn’t take care of the football and threw five interceptions. We were up 14-3 at half and it’s on me to control our approach and not let complacency set in with a young team. I didn’t do a good enough job. We are not going to win many games that way, and our true personality is starting to show now by running the ball and letting our defense get after it.”
“We plan to go one game at a time as we always do,” Rendle said. “We go week to week making sure we are focused in the classroom, meetings and film sessions, and on the field. We get better communication and results the more we focus and play Widener football.
“The Lycoming win was a great experience, but it’s time to put that one behind us and focus on our next opponent. We plan to dominate the line of scrimmage both offensively and defensively. Defensively, we have one of the top rushing defenses. Offensively, we have some big guys up front and we battle day by day just to get each other better.”
Still, the victory over Lycoming is one that will likely stay with the team as it offers a valuable testament to hard work and determination in difficult circumstances.
“It was just another great experience on a Saturday afternoon that has to be appreciated by everyone that participated and everyone that cheered their team on,” Kelly said. “Nothing beats competition, and when you’re playing a vaunted rival on their homecoming, in lousy weather, and the tailgate smoke is enveloping the area, and you get to play extra periods under pressure…those are experiences that will stay with you the rest of your life and allow you to draw upon in difficult situations in the real world later on.”