Stonehill found the end zone on a punt return with 2:15 left in the game, as Merrimack fell, 33-19, on Saturday night
EASTON – There were times on Saturday night that Merrimack’s offense looked like a finely-tuned, well-oiled machine. Then there were times late in the game on Saturday night that Merrimack’s offense looked like a car sputtering on fumes after running on empty.
After scoring the game’s first 12 points, the Warriors surrendered 33 of the game’s next 40 points, falling to Stonehill, 33-19, at W.B. Mason Stadium.
“We’re still not capitalizing on some of the opportunities we had there,” head coach Dan Curran said. “Especially early in the game, we just need to execute a little better.”
The Warriors fell to 2-2 with the loss, 2-1 in the Northeast-10.
The game was essentially 26-19; the Skyhawks scored late after Merrimack tried to convert on fourth down from inside its own territory in a last-ditch effort to tie the score.
Merrimack had a 12-0 lead after touchdowns to Justin Mount and Jere Brown. But the point after was blocked twice. The Skyhawks returned the second block for two points near the end of the first quarter, which seemed to swing momentum in Stonehill’s direction.
“The score was misleading,” said Curran. “We had some opportunities early and right now, as explosive as we are on offense, we’re just not as consistent or efficient as we need to be. I don’t want to hear excuses about our O-line being hurt or that we have a young quarterback. We show some flashes early, and a lot of people think that’s the best D in our league, and they were on their heels.”
Freshman quarterback Joe Capobianco was 15 for 17 with 195 yards passing and two touchdowns at the end of the first quarter. He finished the night 33 for 56, throwing for 399 yards and three touchdown as he continues to impress as a true freshman.
Preseason All-American receiver Jere Brown, who had been held quiet by his standards, caught five balls for 111 yards in the game’s first quarter and finished with 11 catches for 165 yards and a touchdown.
“I don’t think it was so much he was quiet as it was that teams were keying on him,” Curran said. “Teams were making him a focus but we wanted him to be a focus tonight; he had a big game against Stonehill last year too. If teams are taking Jere away, and giving us the inside zone with Armond, we’re going to use that. They were trying to take him away (last night) but he was willed himself to a lot of those catches, he was just better than the guys defending him.”
When protected well, Capobianco sliced up Stonehille’s defense, throwing quick outs to receivers like Zach Ingalls (4-39), Cody Demers (4-45) and Justin Mount (4-35) while also connecting on some screen passes to McRae (5-64), who even caught a few long balls in routes down the field.
Brown Looked impressive stretching the field, averaging 15.0 yards per catch on his 11 grabs and there were times that Capobianco was firing the ball through tight seams between safeties down the field to find Brown.
“That’s kind of what we do offensively with our run-pass stuff,” Curran said. “We have a vertical concept with the No. 1 and 2 going vertical and if they jump on the roll over, we’ll go to those guys and you saw that early in the game. (Capobianco) has been doing good job taking advantage of that.”
After Merrimack tied the score, 19-19, on an Ingalls 15-yard touchdown catch from Capobianco, Stonehill took over after the kick. Merrimack’s defense was able to hold Stonehill’s defense to a three-and-out, which would have forced the Skyhawks to punt from deep in their own territory in a tie game, but the Warriors were whistled for sideline interference on third-and-long – a 15-yard penalty and a first down – after the line judge collided with a Warrior on the sideline running down field.
Although Stonehill punted later on the possession, it dramatically changed the field position; the Skyhawks punt came from 30 yards further down field and the Skyhawks were able to pin the Warriors deep in their own territory. Merrimack would go three-and-out on its possession, but Jay White was forced to punt from 5 yards deep into his own end zone instead of around his own 30-yard line.
Stonehill’s Nate Robitaille took that punt back for the game-winning score.
“One of our kids is there by accident and the official ran into him,” Curran said. “I know that those guys are good guys, and they’re doing what’s best, but to call that at that point in the game just to make a point? It was a critical point in the game. It is what it is.”
After that, Merrimack’s protection had trouble keeping the pressure off and the Warriors struggled to move the ball. Capbianco was sacked five times and was hurried a handful more.
“We need to minimize the sacks,” Curran said. “Joe’s as tough as they come. He stood in there and was getting drilled, but we need to do a better job up front, no excuses. We also need to work with Joe on sometimes just getting rid of the ball. second-and-10 is better than second-and-15, but that’s all stuff he’s learning. He played well, we need to protect him better.”
There were also times that the pressure, combined with other poor execution, led to problems.
After Robitaille returned a punt 52 yards to give Stonehill a 26-19 lead with 2:15 left in the game, the Warriors ensuing drive stalled after a low snap forced Capobianco to take a sack on the first play, setting up second-and-15.
“Everyone knows the first play on a game-winning drive is the most important,” Curran said. “We need to clean that up because if Joe hits Jere there, it’s probably second-and-2 instead of second-and-15. Those are just some little things. Like I said, the score wasn’t indicative, because this was a close game, but we need to clean things up.”
The Warriors return home next Saturday (1 p.m.) against a surprisingly undefeated St. Anselm team that is 4-0.
“We have an undefeated team coming into our place next week and we’ll have to be ready for them,” Curran said. “That’s a good football team coming to our place, but we’ll be ready. I know our guys will bounce back from this, we’ll rally.”
Mike McMahon covers Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report. Mike is also on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN