W&J short on points, quarterbacks in D-III playoffs
W&J backup quarterback Kevin Mechas is sacked by a Johns Hopkins defender and fumbles during the third quarter of an NCAA Division III playoff game Saturday. W&J recovered the fumble. (Courtesy W&J College).
BALTIMORE – The equipment managers of Washington & Jefferson College’s football team made sure every player’s bag was packed. They took enough water buckets, medical supplies and ankle tape.
They did not bring enough quarterbacks.
In one of the most unusual scenarios in school history, W&J was forced to use three quarterbacks after starter Matt Bliss and backup Shane Smith each went down with injuries in the first half.
Freshman Kevin Mechas, who had not taken a snap in a college game all season, played three quarters.
As one might imagine, W&J dropped its first-round playoff game in NCAA Division III against Johns Hopkins, 42-10, Saturday afternoon.
“We didn’t expect to be down to our third quarterback in the first quarter,” said W&J head coach Mike Sirianni. “I don’t even know when Kevin got reps in practice.”
The loss ended the Presidents’ season with the first 8-3 record in the program’s 122-year history. They shared the Presidents’ Athletic Conference title with Waynesburg.
Johns Hopkins, the Centennial Conference champion, won its school-record 10th game and will play Mount Union in Saturday’s second round. It also was the first home playoff victory in Johns Hopkins history.
While W&J was trying to figure out what player to use at quarterback, Johns Hopkins was getting a great performance from its starter, Rob Matey. The 5-9 junior completed 22 of 32 passes for 302 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 35 yards and a touchdown.
Tailback Jonathan Rigaud, who was this year’s Offensive Player of the Year in the Centennial Conference, rushed for 155 yards on 27 carries and wide receiver Daniel Wodicka caught 11 passes for 98 yards and a score.
Johns Hopkins led 21-0 before W&J’s Eric Eberle kicked a field goal 4:16 before halftime and it was 35-3 before Mechas tossed his first collegiate touchdown pass, a 14-yarder to Hunter Creel with 9:03 left in the game.
“(After Bliss went out), we assumed that they would run the same offense, and they did,” said Johns Hopkins head coach Jim Margraff. “We didn’t change our strategy.”
The Presidents were left short-handed at quarterback in August, when senior Andrew Cappucci sustained a season-ending knee injury in camp.
Bliss suffered what Sirianni termed “a severe” concussion after scrambling for a seven-yard gain. He was hit helmet-to-helmet by a Johns Hopkins player, which drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty.
“He was (knocked) out on the field,” said Sirianni. “He wanted to come back in, but we said no. The biggest thing with him out was that it changed our no-huddle offense.”
Smith, a 5-11 sophomore, replaced Bliss with just over two minutes remaining in the first quarter and did a nice job. He completed seven of 11 passes for 54 yards. But with just over five minutes to play in the half, Smith was sacked and twisted his right ankle. He left the game and Mechas came in.
“I was nervous,” Mechas said. “I just tried to stay focused.”
W&J quarterbacks completed 24 of 50 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown. Mechas threw two interceptions, but they came in the fourth quarter when the Presidents were throwing on nearly every down and trailing 35-10.
An interception by strong safety John Arena led to the Blue Jays’ final score, a five-yard run by Jason Blades.
The loss by W&J brought to an end an emotional and difficult season. The Presidents had to overcome the loss of starting tailback Tim McNerny, who was found dead in Washington Oct. 4. They played the final four games in his memory and vowed to win the PAC title and earn a playoff berth.
When asked about the season, Sirianni became emotional and, after a long pause, said: “To win those last four games and dedicate the season to Tim . . . People don’t understand when they say we lost our captain and our best player. We lost the most popular kid on the team. We lost someone who made practices fun when they were going terrible. We can’t look at this season as anything but a success. What they did was remarkable. These guys changed. Tim changed me. Now, it’s how we act off the field that can show how we still honor him.”