NORTHFIELD, Vt. – The Norwich University football team was unable to build off its first two scoring drives, falling to Merchant Marine 30-20 in New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) action on Saturday afternoon at a packed house in Sabine Field at Haynes Family Stadium.
The game appeared as it was going to be a very favorable one for Norwich's offense in the very early going as the Cadets quickly put two touchdowns on the board in the opening two and a half minutes. Junior quarterback Matt Dunn (Rockland, Mass.) found classmate Manni Romero (Phillipsburg, N.J.) for touchdown passes of 73 yard and 30 yards to give Norwich a 14-0 lead.
The Cadets' defense also stood its ground early against a rush attack that has put up almost 400 yards per game and is ranked the number one rushing offense in the nation. The collective defensive effort limited Merchant Marine to just six plays for minus eight yards in the first two drives and recovered a fumble.
A combination of Norwich turnovers and Merchant Marine's running game finding its footing shifted the tides shortly thereafter.
The Mariners followed the second Norwich touchdown with an 18-play, 60-yard drive that was capped off by a Gavin Gartner 40-yard field goal which trimmed the lead to 14-3.
The big-play, quick-hitting offense which was idle during that long drive could not regain its rhythm again until much later in the game as Dunn and his receivers could not get in synch. Dunn would complete just 19-of-39 passes on the day.
Merchant Marine returned to the well using what has given them so much success so far this year; pounding the ball on the ground. Even though Norwich did an excellent job holding the visitors well-below their average rushing yards per game and held them to just a 33 percent conversion rate on third downs, the Mariners option offense was too much of a challenge to stop on fourth down, short yardage plays. The visitors converted on 4-of-5 of their fourth down opportunities to continue drives and keep the Norwich offense off the field.
After the Cadets' initial 14-0 lead, the Mariners responded with 30 unanswered points spanning between the first and third quarters, building a 20-14 lead at halftime and a 30-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Gartner hit a 31-yard field goal as time expired in the opening quarter to cut Norwich's lead to 14-6. After a deep punt pinned Norwich on its own one-yard line, the Mariner's defense produced a defensive touchdown recovering Norwich's fumbled snap in the end zone and trimming the lead to 14-12. The defense came up with another key turnover as Tanner Carter picked off a Dunn pass. This set up a 12-play, 50-yard drive which was capped by a goal line plunge by Matt Strong to put USMMA in the lead 20-14 after the two-point rushing conversion by Alec Kiernan was successful.
USMMA continued to chew up yardage on the ground with a 13-play, 54-yard drive on its second possession following halftime which led to Gartner's 20-yard field goal giving them a 23-14 lead. After picking off another Cadet pass on the first play of the next drive, the Mariners once again used a long, run-heavy drive spanning 4:44 to punch in its final score of the day. Kiernan scored on a one-yard goal line rush on 3rd and goal to put the visitors up 30-14.
Norwich could not find any offensive rhythm of its own in the second half until 3:39 remaining in the game. A crucial 15-yard pass to senior receiver Ryan Reed (Ballston Spa, N.Y.) on 4th and 11 seemed to ignite the drive. Dunn found Romero and Chase for gains of over 20 yards which led to Dunn scoring on a three-yard, QB keeper making it 30-20. However, the two-point conversion failed and the Cadets were unsuccessful in their onside kick attempt which left the Mariners free to run out the clock.
Dunn (305 yards) passed for over 300 yards for the fourth time this season for the Cadets. Romero had his best receiving game of the season hauling in seven catches for 189 yards and his sixth and seventh TD receptions.
With the defense seeing extended time on the field against the Mariners' rushing attack, the team was forced to make a lot of tackles (124). Sophomore defensive back Zev Motew (Highland Park, Ill.) produced well in his first extended look this season registering a career-high 16 tackles. Jonathan Moltimer (Boca Raton, Fla.), Austen Greene (Herndon, Va.) and Cahan Quinn (Putnam, Conn.) each added career-highs with 14 tackles while four of Cahan's tackles were for a loss.
Krystian Abbot was extremely efficient for USMMA as he notched 115 yards on 7-of-8 passes. James Early and Kiernan paved the way on the ground for the Mariners combining for 139 yard on 34 carries. Joe Vitelli led the receiving corps with five catches for 93 yards. Eric Davidson led the team in tackling with seven total while also picking up an interception.
Norwich will prepare for its next NEWMAC battle after its bye week this coming Saturday. The Cadets will host Maine Maritime on October 26th and noon.