CASTINE — Facing Division III football’s most potent rushing attack on the road didn’t faze Endicott College quarterback Phil Konopka one bit.
The Gulls from Beverly, Mass., countered Maine Maritime Academy’s offense power with some fireworks of their own, as Konopka threw for 255 yards while Mike Lane rushed for 123 more, and his late touchdown gave coach J.D. Wells’ club a thrilling 38-35 victory in the New England Football Conference championship game on an unseasonably warm Saturday at Ritchie Field.
Konopka picked the Mariners’ defense apart, completing 27 of 34 passes while consistently burning the defending NEFC champs over the middle.
“Coming in we knew that they would have some holes in the defense,” said Konopka, who also ran for two touchdowns.
The Gulls’ defense was also opportunistic against the Mariners’ triple-option attack, forcing four MMA fumbles and recovering three of them.
The Mariners turned the ball over four times.
“Mistakes will cost you, and we certainly made a bunch of them, especially in the first half,” said MMA coach Chris McKenney.
Endicott was confident it could move the ball against a Mariners’ defense that came in surrendering 355 total yards per game.
“We knew exactly what their defense was going to do, and we had a good game plan for it,” said Lane.
Endicott’s receiving contingent was led by Ryan Carino’s 10 catches for 85 yards while Neil Powers hauled in eight passes for 82 yards.
“That’s one thing we saw in the scouting report that the middle of the field was going to be open, so we adjusted some of our routes to get Neil Powers and Mike Fimiani into the middle of the field, and those guys both came up with huge gains,” said Wells.
Fimiani certainly did on the game-winning drive, which started at the E-28 with 3:04 to play, as two of his three receptions came on that march.
Konopka completed all five of his passes for 39 yards, while Lane capped the nine-play march by scoring off left tackle from five yards out with 58.6 seconds left. Dylan Rushe’s extra-point gave the Gulls a three-point lead.
The Mariners moved the ball to the Gulls’ 49 on their final possession, but Matt Rende’s final pass into the left corner of the end zone was caught out of bounds by Nate Duford.
Endicott didn’t start to throw the ball much until the second half, but the Mariners couldn’t find an answer.
“They’ve got a good quarterback and they’ve got good receivers and they executed well, we just didn’t stop it,” McKenney said.
The Gulls trailed 28-17 early in the fourth quarter, but responded with a nine-play, 61-yard march on which Konopka completed five of six passes. They included a well-executed, 11-yard lob to Lane in the far corner of the end zone. It was a five-point game as the two-point conversion failed.
The Mariners subsequently made their lone mistake of the second half, as quarterback Rende fumbled on a third-down option keeper, and Endicott’s Marcell Cooper recovered at the MMA 40.
It only took the Gulls six plays to find the end zone. Konopka scored from one yard out and connected with Lane on the two-point conversion pass for a 31-28 lead.
That drive was aided by a pass interference penalty in the end zone that gave the Gulls a first-and-goal at the 1.
Even though the Mariners were victimized by two first-half turnovers, the hosts still managed to take a 14-10 halftime lead.
Maine Maritime scored on its third offensive play, with Nick Bourassa sweeping down the left sideline on an option pitch and scoring untouched from 51 yards out.
It took Endicott only four plays to find the end zone after an MMA fumble, as a 19-yard third-down pass from Konopka to Jimmy Nguyen set the Gulls up at the 1. Konopka bulled his way to paydirt one play later, and Rushe’s extra point put the visitors up 7-6.
Rushe extended the lead later in the second quarter with a 35-yard field goal.
The Mariners ended the first half with a flourish, driving 95 yards in 10 plays while surprising the Gulls a bit with an air attack.
Rende got MMA out from the shadow of its own goalpost with a 23-yard pass to Todd Murphy on third down, and got the Mariners to midfield with a 25-yard hookup to Michael Collins one play later.
Bower then moved the Mariners to the E-20 on four rushes, and Rende and Nate Duford connected on a 20-yard scoring strike in the final minute, with Duford making a sliding catch along the back line of the end zone.
The Mariners, who were led by Bower’s 245 yards and two touchdowns, set an NCAA Division III record for most rushing yards in a season with 4,803. Springfield College held the previous mark of 4,496, and Bower moved into sixth place among D-III rushing leaders with 5,917 for his career.
Endicott (9-1) 7 3 7 21 — 38
Maine Maritime (8-2) 6 8 7 14 — 35
MMA – Bourassa 51 run (kick failed)
END – Konopka 1 run (Rushe kick)
END – Rushe 35 yard field goal
MMA – Duford 20 pass from Rende (Bower rush)
MMA – Rende 54 run (Brennan kick)
END – Allen 2 pass from Konopka (Rushe kick)
MMA – Bower 5 run (Brennan kick)
END – Lane 11 pass from Konopka (pass failed)
END – Clukey 1 run (Lane pass from Clukey)
MMA – Bower 30 run (Brennan kick)
END – Lane 5 run (Rushe kick)