Utica set to take on Susquehanna in the 2022 NCAA Football Championship First Round Saturday

Football | 11/18/2022 2:00:00 PM

UTICA, NY – The Utica University football team prepares for its first NCAA tournament appearance as the team travels to Selinsgrove, PA at noon on Saturday for its first round game against the No. 11 Susquehanna University River Hawks.

Follow Along: Susquehanna will provide live video through https://landmarknetwork.tv/susquehanna/ as well as live stats at https://suriverhawks.com/sidearmstats/football/summary.

Last Time Out: The team capped off the best regular season in program history after taking down the St. John Fisher University Cardinals 35-21 on Saturday for its ninth win of 2022. The Cardinals started the afternoon on offense, but the Utica defense forced a three-and-out following a trio of incomplete passes. The Pioneers began their first drive of the game on the Fisher 15 yard line following a botched Cardinals punt. Utica took just under four minutes off the clock before Braeden Zenelovic connected with Joey Nare through the air for a free play 25 yard touchdown pass following an offsides call on Fisher. The Pioneers went up 7-0 following Corey Lichtman’s PAT. On the sixth play of Fisher’s next drive, Dan Amady intercepted a pass and returned it to the Pioneers’ 48 which set up another Utica score eight plays later for a 14-0 lead. The Pioneers jumped ahead 21-0 on Zenelovic’s second touchdown pass of the game that came at the 12:33 mark in the second quarter. However, Fisher cut his deficit back down to 15 points after a 10-play, 78-yard ensuing drive ended with a four-yard touchdown run. The point after would be unsuccessful to make it a 21-6 game in favor of the Pioneers. With 2:38 left in the first, the Cardinals took over at midfield after Utica turned the ball over on downs. Fisher went down the field in three plays and in under one minute to score and close the gap to 21-12. However, the Pioneers denied the Cardinals of its two-point conversion attempt to stay ahead by two possessions. With under one minute to play in the first half, Zenelovic’s pass attempt was picked off at the Cardinals eight yard line which ultimately took the game into halftime with Utica ahead 21-12. Utica possessed the ball for 16:32 in the first half while also totaling 182 yards on offense to Fisher’s 158. Zenelovic went 11-for-15 passing for 138 yards, two scores and an interception in the first half while Travis Decker was his top receiver with four catches for 70 yards. The Pioneers’ offense regrouped coming out of the locker room as the team opened the third quarter with a five play, 57 yard touchdown drive after an unsportsmanlike penalty on Fisher started the Utica drive at the Pioneers’ 43. On the third play of the drive , Zenelovic and Nate Palmer connected for 43 yards through the air while Decker brought in his first touchdown of the game two plays later from three yards out. Lichtman’s PAT extended Utica’s lead to 28-12. The rest of the third quarter was all about defense. Fisher’s first drive of the second half chewed up 6:39 as the team went 64 yards over 13 plays but eventually turned the ball over on downs. Utica’s second drive of the half was also lengthy, going nine plays and 44 yards before the team punted the ball away inside the Cardinals’ 10 yard line. The Pioneers forced another Fisher three-and-out to close the third and enter the final 15 minutes with the ball at the Cardinals’ 40. However, Utica was forced to punt after three plays and -3 yards while Fisher turned around and punted themselves on their next drive with 9:30 to play. The decision to punt for the team’s own 44 paid off as the kick went for 55 yards and was down at the Utica 1, leading to a safety on the Pioneers’ first play to make the score 28-14. Following the safety, Fisher started with the ball on his own 24 looking to make it a one passion game. The home team drove 71 yards down the field on 11 plays and scored on a 3rd and 10 from the Utica 15 to close the gap to 28-21. However, the drive ate up over 5:30 off the clock, giving the Pioneers the ball back on their own 25 with 3:57 to play. Utica iced the game on a historic throw from Zenelovic to Palmer. With 1:39 to play in the game, Zenelovic dropped back and lofted one up to Palmer who was 27 yards away in the back of the end zone. Palmer came down with the ball to set a new single season program record with his 16th receiving touchdown of the year. The score also put the final nail in the contest as the Pioneers walked away from Fisher with a 35-21 week 11 win. On offense, Zenelovic finished 22-for-28 passing with 290 yards and four touchdowns. Decker led the receivers with 88 yards on six catches and one score while Palmer finished with four catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. John Stroughn dominated on defense with a career-high four sacks while leading the team with 12 total tackles. Anthony Novello, Anthony McDonald, James Prastio and Amady all had seven or more tackles as well.

The Field: On Sunday, the NCAA Division III Football Committee announced the field of 32 teams for the 2022 NCAA Division III Football Championship. The committee selected teams based on conference results and competition within an institution’s respective evaluation region. Twenty-seven conferences received automatic qualifying berths. The remaining five berths were awarded to teams from automatic qualifying conferences that did not win an automatic berth. The first round of the championship will be played on November 19 at the host institution’s campus or at an alternate site approved by the football committee. The Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the national championship game, will be played Friday, December 16, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. The game will be broadcast live on ESPNU at 7 pm

Conferences and Teams Receiving Automatic Qualification (27):

American Southwest Conference – Mary Hardin-Baylor
American Rivers Conference – Wartburg
Centennial Conference – Susquehanna
College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin – North Central (Illinois)
Commonwealth Coast Conference Endicott
Eastern Collegiate Football Conference – Gallaudet
Empire 8 – SUNY Cortland
Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference – Mt. St. Joseph
Liberty League – Ithaca
Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference – Massachusetts Dartmouth
Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association – Alma
Middle Atlantic Conference – Delaware Valley
Midwest Conference – Lake Forest
Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference – Saint John’s (Minnesota)
New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference – Springfield
New Jersey Athletic Conference – Salisbury
North Coast Athletic Conference – DePauw
Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference – Aurora
Northwest Conference – Linfield
Ohio Athletic Conference – Mount Union
Old Dominion Athletic Conference – Randolph-Macon
Presidents’ Athletic Conference – Carnegie Mellon
Southern Athletic Association – Trinity (Texas)
Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference – Pomona-Pitzer
Upper Midwest Athletic Conference – Northwestern-St. Paul
USA South Athletic Conference – Huntingdon
Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference – Wisconsin-Whitewater

Pool C Berths (5):

(listed alphabetically)
Bethel (Minnesota)

Wheaton (Illinois)

How We Got Here: The Pioneers earned their first-ever playoff nod as an at-large selection after finishing the regular season at 9-1 overall, the most wins in a single season in program history, and a 5-1 record in Empire 8 play. Utica finished top-50 in Division III averaging 35.1 points per game thanks to a top-30 passing attack. The team began the season 6-0, which marked the best start in program history, and since falling to SUNY Cortland on October 22 the team has gone 3-0 while the defense has held opponents to 18 points per game. In the final Region 2 rankings that were released on Tuesday, the Pioneers were placed fifth and were the final team from the region to earn a playoff berth.

Award Season: The Empire 8 announced its football all-conference selections for the 2022 season and 14 Pioneers were honored with 18 awards. Nate Palmer was the most decorated of the bunch as he was named the E8 Offensive player of the Year, a first team selection as a wide receiver and all-purpose, and second team honors as a returner. Jimmie Warren also took home top honors as he was named the league’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year as well as a first team defensive line selection. Braeden Zenelovic (QB), John Stroughn (DL) and Terrance Toussaint (DB) were each second team selections while Matt Brantley (RB), John Aliberti (OL), Mike Kreuter (OL), Ryan Walker (OL), Anthony Novello ( LB), Corey Lichtman (K) Jamel Smith (Returner) and Sam Florio (All-Purpose) were each selected to the third team. Daryl Savage was also Utica’s Sportsman of the Year recipient. The Empire 8 Conference emphasizes that “Competing with Honor and Integrity” is an essential component of a student-athlete’s experience in conjunction with an institution’s educational mission. The honorees of this award have distinguished themselves and consistently exhibit the critical traits as outstanding sportsmen.

A Duo for the Ages: Even while having just 10 games played with each other, Braeden Zenelovic and Nate Palmer may go down as the best quarterback-wide receiver duo in program history. On one side of the equation, Palmer has set single-season program records with 17 receiving touchdowns and 1,222 receiving yards; both marks also ranked second in all of DIII. On the other hand, Zenelovic is the Empire 8 leader among quarterbacks with 2,643 passing yards, 28 passing touchdowns and a 68.9 completion percentage while ranking within the top-15 nationally in each of those categories as well. Zenelovic also finds himself second all-time in program single-season history with 28 touchdowns, three behind the record of 31, and fifth in yards sitting exactly 500 away from the single-season program record. He currently holds the program single-season mark for completion percentage as well as in passer efficiency.

Strong Finish: John Stroughn finished his regular season being named Empire 8 Defensive Player of the Week. Stroughn was a force all afternoon in Utica’s 35-21 win over St. John Fisher University on Saturday. The senior had team highs with five solo tackles, seven assisted tackles, 12 total tackles, four sacks and four tackles for loss. Following the game, Stroughn propelled himself into third in the Empire 8 with 6.5 sacks on the season while also breaking the top-10 in the league in tackles for loss.

About Susquehanna: The Centennial Conference champion River Hawks enter the tournament 10-0 overall while posting a 9-0 mark in CC play. Susquehanna also comes into postseason play as the top-ranked team in Region 2. The team finished the regular season as a top-25 scoring offense and defense nationally averaging 40.2 points per game while the team’s defense allowed just 13.7. Michael Ruisch has commanded the offense all season as the quarterback has thrown for 2,353 yards on 60.69 percent passing to go with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Four running backs have attempted at least 40 carries this season, but none more than Frankie Negrini, who leads the team with 569 yards on the ground on 133 attempts over eight games. Kyle Howes headlines the receiving corps after totaling team highs this season with 47 receptions, 771 yards and nine scores. On defense, the River Hawks’ linebacking core of John Nicosia, Drew Robinson and Garrett Carter are top-three on the team in tackles and combined for 8.5 of the team’s 29 sacks on the year. Susquehanna has fared well against the run, ranking 34th in DIII allowing 85.9 yards on the ground per game as part of a unit that ranked 37th nationally allowing 269 yards to opposing offenses per game.

Up Next: The winner will advance to the second round of the NCAA Division III Football Tournament to take on the winner of No. 2 University of Mount Union and Salisbury University on November 26.

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