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November 5, 2011

Failed third-, fourth-down conversions haunt Mariners in 33-14 loss

KINGS POINT, N.Y. – U.S. Merchant Marine Academy head football coach Mike Toop got right to the point when he analyzed his team's 33-14 Liberty League loss to Union College on Saturday.

"We just got outplayed," he said. "When you look at third and fourth down, that was the big difference in the game. We didn't make any plays on third down. We didn't make any plays on fourth down, except on a fake on a field. And they did. They converted third downs and fourth downs and we didn't."

He was exactly right. The Mariners (2-7, 1-4) converted only 3 of 11 third-down situation and only once in four fourth-down attempts. On the other side of the ledger, the Dutchmen (5-1, 5-4) made good on 9 of 16 tries on third down and were one-for-one in fourth-down confrontations at Tomb Field.

Their success was mostly due to senior quarterback Drew Connolly, who completed 17 of 31 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns. He played catch with Justin Gallo for most of the afternoon as the junior wide receiver caught seven passes for 92 yards for two TDs. Running back T.J. Franzese added 118 yards in 17 carries.

Junior quarterback Alex Coviello led the Mariners with 150 yards in 13 carries, including a 71-yard TD run in the first quarter. Chris Adema had the other TD, a 13-yard run that lifted the Merchant Marines to a 14-10 lead with 2:08 remaining in a high-scoring opening period.

But after the Mariners took the lead, Union punched in 23 unanswered points to pull away.

"After the first quarter our offense was basically non-existent," Toop said. "Defensively, we gave up too many big plays."

Twice the Mariners within striking distance and twice they failed to convert on fourth down.

The first time came with Kings Point trailing 17-14 with the ball and a fourth and one on the Union 13-yard-line midway through the second quarter. But a botched pitch from Coviello doomed the Mariners' chances as Richard Lyons was caught for a two-yard loss by senior defensive back Jafar Johnson.

"They threw a bad pitch," Toop said. "They would have tackled him anyway."

The second time came with the Merchant Marines again knocking on Union's door behind by a 33-14 margin late in the third quarter. With a fourth-and-one on the Dutchmen's one-yard line,  Adema was tackled for a two-yard loss by junior linebacker Connor Beerworth. The drive included the Mariners' lone fourth-down conversion as Michael Mitchel completed a six-yard shovel pass to Barry Breusch on a fake field-goal attempt on a fourth and three from the visitors' 15-yard line.

"When your kids go the wrong way and there are mental mistakes, you don't have any chance to make any plays." Toop said. "Our kids made mental mistakes today and that's about as disappointing as it gets because it's not real hard."

Connolly's first TD pass to Gallo and the first of four point-after conversions by Adam Henry gave the visitors a 7-0 lead with 12:41 left in a wide-open first period.  Henry also kicked field goals of 25 and 19 yards in the first and second quarters, respectively.

A brilliant 71-yard run down the right side by Coviello (he had 110 rushing yards in the first quarter alone) and the first of two Richard Grennan extra points tied it at 7-7 with 8:37 remaining.

After Henry's first field gave Union a 10-7 edge with 3:33 to go in the quarter, Adema boosted the Mariners into a 14-10 advantage with 2:08 left. Exactly a minute later the Dutchmen grabbed the lead for good as Jimmer Bennett hauled in a 38-yard pass from Connolly for a 17-14 halftime lead.

Asked how confident he was in the early going, Toop replied, "You never think in those terms during the game. You just coach series to series and try to fast forward. It all comes down to the fourth quarter. See where you are in the fourth quarter and then you go from there as far as what your chances are going to be, based on how your kids are playing. It's too early in the game. There's a lot of football to be played. You just call the game the way you see it."

Union made sure the game was all but decided entering the fourth quarter. The Dutchmen added another Connolly-to-Gallo TD pass, a 28-yard reception – a ball that sophomore defensive back Tyler Washington appeared to have intercepted, but went right through his hands – with 6:42 left in the third period for a 24-14 bulge.

After Henry's field goal gave the visitors some breaking room with nine seconds to go in the quarter, Rob Johnson closed out the scoring with a two-yard plunge with 7:37 remaining in the game.

Linebacker Kevin Stapf completed his home career with another standout performance on Senior Day (he was one of 15 seniors recognized and honored prior to kickoff), making nine solo tackles and assisting on five others. Washington also finished with nine tackles and one assist, while senior linebacker Barry Preusch made seven solo tackles and had two sacks.

The Mariners complete their season with a 1 p.m. encounter at RPI next Saturday.

Photo: Quarterback Alex Coviello ran for 110 yards in the first quarter, including a 71-yard jaunt for a TD. Photo by Shawn Antonelli