By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Little did any of us know when we watched Wagner outplay and come within a snap, or two of beating FBS Florida Atlantic on the opening Friday of the season, that the Seahawks would still be making noise when the NCAA Division I Football playoffs began on Thanksgiving weekend.
It has been a long, wild journey along the way, but Wagner's remarkable season will continue at least another week after a 31-20 victory over Colgate on a blustery Saturday afternoon filled with snow flurries at Walt Hameline Field.
The Seahawks (9-3) stymied one of the most potent offenses in the Football Championship Subdivision, forcing Colgate quarterback Gavin McCarney into five turnovers and the one-two punch of quarterback Nick Doscher and running back Dominique Williams provided enough big plays to lift Wagner to the first-round victory.
"There were some pretty good hits out there," said veteran Wagner coach Walt Hameline. "We said we had to play physical football, which we've played all year. At the same time, you've got to keep hitting these guys, because they're going to run the ball at you."
Williams banged through the Colgate defense 21 times for 106 yards and a touchdown and Doscher carried on 18 occasions for 91 yards and a score to go with an 11-for-19 passing day, good for 95 yards and two more TDs.
Less than a month after their community was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, the Seahawks have won the Northeast Conference title with a 30-0 win over Albany, hosted the NEC's first playoff home game and captured the first postseason victory in league history.
"You can't really make it up," said Doscher. "I don't think we're done writing the book yet."
Wagner, which ranks sixth nationally in scoring defense and 11th in total defense, advances into a second-round matchup with No. 2 seed Eastern Washington in Cheney, WA. at 6 p.m. next Saturday with a nine-game winning streak after snapping Colgate's seven-game win skein.
"We didn't want our season to end on our field, we took pride in defending the hill," Doscher added. "We had a great crowd and we didn't want to disappoint them."
Playing in front of an announced crowd of 3,032 in the mostly packed stands of the quaint stadium, in the shadow of the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge, overlooking the Hudson River and New York Harbor, Wagner did its best again to lift the spirits of its hard-hit community.
"For three hours, if they are able to come here, we just want them to forget about things for awhile and to give them something to smile about," said Doscher.
It didn't take Wagner long to set the tone.
Cornerback Torian Phillips intercepted McCarney's first pass on the third play of the day as right defensive end Jerome Williams pressured the Colgate off the edge.
McCarney's pass sailed over the head of his intended receiver and traveled slightly behind Phillips, who made a nice grab and jetted 31 yards to the Raider 17.
The Seahawks didn't waste any time to take advantage of the turnover, with Doscher rifling a scoring strike to Anthony Carrington on the next play.
Carrington ran a perfect post pattern to split Colgate's safeties and give Wagner a 7-0 lead just four minutes and 41 seconds into the game.
Colgate (8-4) tried to counter with a drive to the Wagner 23 later in the first period, but inside linebacker Mike Lombardo (team-high 11 tackles, two sacks) forced a McCarney fumble and C.O. Prime recovered at the 20 to kill the Raiders' threat.
Things went from bad to worse for the Patriot League champion early in the second period when Wagner put together a 10-play, 86-yard drive behind the rushing thrusts of Williams and Doscher.
Doscher completed one pass to Dan Ford for 22 yards to convert a third and 16 situation and Williams capped things off with a 10-yard TD burst to make it 14-0 less than two minutes into the second period.
With a two-score advantage, the Seahawks began to play a high-stakes game of keep away and Colgate couldn't make enough impact to recover.
The teams traded touchdowns on a four-yard McCarney blast and a 13-yard Doscher scamper to make it a 21-7 Wagner lead with five minutes left in the first half, but Colgate answered with a pair of big special team plays.
Evan Goldzak's 47-yard punt was downed at the one and that set up the biggest play of the game for Colgate four plays later.
Vince Myers crashed through the line to block A.J. Firestone's punt from the end zone and Demetrius Russell caught it for a quick touchdown to pulle Colgate to 21-14.
But Wagner grabbed the momentum back very quickly with a 24-yard Otis Wright kickoff return to the Wagner 39 and Doscher maneuvered the Seahawks into field goal range in the waning seconds of the half.
David Lopez's kick tore through the stiff headwind and the ball dropped just over the crossbar for a clutch 46-yarder that pushed Wagner back to a 24-14 advantage.
Any hopes Colgate had of a comeback dissolved into a slew of second-half turnovers.
The Raiders lost the ball on three successive third-quarter possessions.
McCarney was hit by Patrick Gibbons for a fumble strong safety Sidiq Soulemana recovered at the Colgate 36 just four plays into the second half and only one snap after McCarney had coughed up the ball, but recovered after a big stick from outside linebacker Thomas Clohessy.
The next time Colgate had the ball, McCarney was struck by the fumble bug again, coughing it up on a tackle by Prime, with Clohessy pouncing on it at the Wagner 32 to end another scoring threat.
"They hit hard and were going for the ball,” Colgate head coach Dick Biddle said. "I don't know if Gavin was having hard time carrying the ball, it's just they were pretty good hits. We've been pretty good about that all year."
On the third Raider possession of the third quarter, McCarney moved Colgate down to the Wagner 39, facing a fourth and four. But facing delayed blitz pressure, McCarney made another poor decision on a throw and it was intercepted again by Phillips at the WC 22.
"We made sure we played as one, played as a team, hat's our motto," said Phillips. "One heartbeat, one team, you're going to get the win. We're just writing a book and making history."
Following a four-yard return, Wagner set out to put the game away with a 13-play, 74-yard march.
Mixing runs from the spread formation with a couple of key pass completions, Doscher moved the Seahawks into scoring range and his perfectly-thrown, six-yard pass to David Crawford on a fade route gave Wagner a 31-14 lead with 9:15 left on the fourth-quarter clock.
The desperate Raiders made one last charge, with a 12-play, 69-yard drive that Jordan McCord finished with a four-yard scoring smash with under six minutes remaining.
But again, the momentum of the moment was snapped away on two Andrew Burgess kicks.
First Burgess missed the extra point, leaving Colgate trailing by 11 points and then his onside kick attempt was touched after nine yards to negate a Raider recovery on video replay.
With the ball at the Colgate 44, all that Wagner needed was to convert three first downs to end the game.
"We played like the dickens at the end of the game today, we were ripping balls out," Hameline said. "Those five turnovers took the ball out of (Colgate's) hands. Coming in we needed to keep the ball away from them as much as possible."
While Colgate struggled with six fumbles, losing three, and the two interceptions, the Seahawks continued their string of having just one turnover in the past 11 games.
"It's disappointing because I don't think we played particularly well, but sometimes that happens," Biddle said. "We just couldn't get it within one score. We fumbled the ball and made uncharacteristic mistakes on offense, and then our defense kind of wore out."
It was Wagner's first NCAA playoff appearance at the FCS level and the first for the program since 1988.
"Wagner did a great job,” Biddle said. "Their quarterback had a heck of a game and they kept us off-balance on defense. And their defense was very fast – we had a tough time blocking them."
It was the first postseason victory for the Seahawks since its 19-3 victory over Dayton on Dec. 12, 1987 in the Division III national championship game.
"Being here has taught me how to love the player next to me," said Williams. "We try not to think about other teams and what they have to say. We just stick to what we do best and that's playing, having fun and being there for each other."