By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
THE BRONX, N.Y. — You can’t help but feel the tradition that oozes from every building and every monument on the Fordham University campus.
The first time I walked into the press box at Jack Coffey Field several years ago, my jaw dropped when I came face-to-face with a physical manifestation of Lombardi.
No, it wasn’t Vince Lombardi, but it was a family member that looked enough like the legendary coach and seventh block of granite to cause me a few double takes.
Fordham wears its history well and is pleased to tell anyone who asks about its rich and colorful traditions.
But the 2013 Ram football team has set a course towards writing new history nearly every weekend this fall.
That endeavor continued Saturday afternoon when Fordham hosted its first-ever Football Championship Subdivision playoff game and held off a determined Sacred Heart squad, 37-27, in the first round of the NCAA Division I Football Championships.
Michael Nebrich completed 32-of-51 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns and rushed 11 times for 38 yards and another score, while the under-appreciated Fordham defense forced four turnovers, with two interceptions in the fourth quarter to seal only the second playoff win in school history.
“One of the reasons they are 12-1 is it starts with the quarterback,” said Sacred Heart coach Mark Nofri, like Moorhead in his second year. “That kid is pretty good and they do a good job of protecting him. They also have three pretty good receivers.”
That receiving trio of Sam Ajala, Tebucky Jones, Jr. and Brian Wetzel combined for 18 receptions, two touchdowns and 273 yards, but they were somewhat upstaged by tight end Dan Light, who hauled in nine catches — many of them key ones — for 68 yards to keep the chains moving against a scrappy Sacred Heart defense.
The victory not only vaulted the Rams into a second-round showdown with No. 7-seeded Towson next Saturday in suburban Baltimore, but it gave Fordham a school-record 12th victory this season, against just one defeat.
“Every week we go out and try to go 1-0,” said Fordham’s second-year coach Joe Moorhead. “The way we are playing, we respect everyone and we fear no one. When you get to the playoffs, it is a one-game season every week and we think we can beat anyone we play against.”
Saturday’s effort against the most improved team in FCS this season, the Sacred Heart Pioneers (2-9 last season and 10-3 in 2013), was far from Fordham’s most efficient game of the year. But the Rams made enough plays to ensure that they would survive and advance.
Nebrich, less than a month removed from a knee injury that slowed him in the final third of the season, directed the Ram offense to 539 yards of total offense and wore down the Pioneer defense with 90 snaps of the ball, but he wasn’t particularly satisfied.
“I think were as good as any offense in the country, as long as we execute to our level we aren’t going to be beaten,” said Nebrich, who has brought bushels of talent and bundles of leadership ability to the Rams since transferring from Connecticut before the season began. “We had drops, we had penalties, we were stopping ourselves. We can’t play like that next week, we have to play a complete game.”
Senior Carlton Koonce, surely one of the most unsung All-American running backs in the country, contributed 26 carries for 96 yards on the ground and added four catches for 56 yards and another touchdown.
“You never want it to end and I don’t want it to end,” said Koonce, who saw his college career extended for at least one more game. “You battle for another week.”
Even with all of the battling, Fordham found itself in a vulnerable position heading into the fourth quarter, leading Sacred Heart 31-27 and allowing the Pioneers to move to near the midfield stripe with less than 14 minutes to play.
But the Rams came up with huge plays on back-to-back snaps as strong-side linebacker Brett Biestek sniffed out a reverse on first down and blew up the play for a seven-yard loss and cornerback Jordan Chapman blanketed a receiver on a deep out pattern and intercepted redshirt freshman quarterback R.J. Noel’s under-thrown pass.
Chapman returned the ball 35 yards to the Sacred Heart 33 to set up one of three Michael Marando field goals, giving the Rams a 34-27 lead with 11:27 left.
With Noel and the Pioneer offense threatening again midway through the fourth quarter at their own 43, free safety Levon Williams blanketed fullback Pat Casey along the Fordham sideline and picked off a Noel pass at the Ram 29.
Williams also added two fumble recoveries on balls stripped away by middle linebacker Jake Rodrigues, who also had a team-high nine tackles.
Nebrich and company then moved the ball deep into Sacred Heart territory to set up Marando for a game-clinching field goal, with a couple of breaks.
Kicking from 33 yards out with 2:05 remaining, Marando had his low kick deflected by Kellen Sperdato, but the ball carried to the crossbar, where it bounced once and toppled softly over the standard to give the Rams an insurmountable 10-point advantage.
It was a sad ending to a Sacred Heart campaign that far exceeded any realistic expectations.
“You are playing one of the better teams in the country at this level and you can’t make turnovers,” said Nofri. “Our kids battled for 60 minutes and didn’t give up.”
Besides the two fourth-quarter interceptions for Noel (11-of-28, 166 yards passing), two first-half fumbles by running back Keshaudes Spence (25 carries, 194 yards, two TDs) also were costly.
Spence kept the Pioneers in the game with a scoring run of 65 yards in the first period, a 57-yard burst that set up one of a pair of Chris Rogers field goals early in the third period and a one-yard touchdown blast late in fourth stanza.
But the hard-working junior was devastated by his two fumbles.
“We definitely let one get away today,” Spence said. “Fordham is a great football team, but we are a great football team too. We could have pulled out a win, but we shot ourselves in the foot.”