BANGOR, Maine — John Smith has rushed for a school-record 5,105 yards during his three-plus years on the Husson University football team.
But few came with as much difficulty as the 142 yards he earned on 30 carries Saturday as the Eagles opened their 2017 season with a 20-7 non-conference victory over Union College of Schenectady, New York, at the Winkin Sports Complex.
“This is a good win,” said Husson coach Gabby Price after the Eagles’ first victory in a season opener since a 25-13 decision over Pace on Aug. 31, 2007.
Smith, a 6-foot, 218-pound senior from Fayetteville, Georgia, managed just 32 yards on eight first-half carries against a stout Union team winless as recently as 2015 but on the upswing under second-year head coach Jeff Behrman.
“Those guys on defense from Union were great,” said Smith, a two-time Eastern Collegiate Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year who began the game needing 37 rushing yards to reach 5,000 for his career.
“Their defense was disciplined. They had their keys and they read them, they did a good job.”
But Smith and a Husson offensive line featuring five first-year starters found their bearings after intermission to back up a Husson defense whose resilience was tested throughout the afternoon until an interception by junior defensive back Quan Soyini with Husson nursing a 14-7 lead with 1:31 left in the game quashed Union’s comeback hopes.
“Our game plan is to wear teams out the first couple of quarters and then to bring it to them in the fourth quarter,” said Smith. “Our linemen do a great job of trusting the running backs and the running backs do a great job of trusting the linemen to put us where we need to be.”
Husson’s defense got nine tackles each from senior defensive back Jean Gabriel and junior linebacker Elvin Suazo Jr., eight tackles and a fumble recovery from senior defensive end Luke Washburn and interceptions from Soyini and freshman defensive lineman Frank Curran of Portland.
“We complement each other,” said Smith. “(The defense) had our backs in the first half, and in the fourth quarter we had their backs.”
Union was paced by senior halfback Connor Kinzelmann, who rushed for 87 yards on 27 carries, and junior quarterback Nick Cascione, who completed 14 of 23 passes for 191 yards. Packy Brown, a junior wide receiver, had five receptions for 135 yards for the Dutchmen, who outgained Husson 315-257 in total yardage.
Union nearly took the initial lead five minutes into the game after Cascione passed 47 yards to Alex Kaplanovich for a first down at the Husson 10. Cascone then passed to Beal along the left sideline, but Husson sophomore Lionel Guillaume knocked the ball out of Beal’s hands before he reached the end zone and the loose ball went out of the end zone for a drive-ending touchback.
Husson took a 7-0 lead with 3:32 left in the opening period when freshman wideout Kyrie Calli caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Corey Brandon (14 of 23 passing, 145 yards).
The score was set up when Guillaume forced a Union fumble and Washburn recovered at the Dutchmen 14.
Husson was backed up to fourth-and-18 from the 22 when the Eagles called time and then set up Calli for a crossing pattern over the middle that didn’t go exactly as planned. A Union defender tipped Brandon’s pass as it crossed the goal line before Calli eyed the redirection and made the reception just before it hit the ground.
That lead stood until late in the third quarter when Union marched 93 yards to tie the game on Cascione’s 13-yard scoring pass to senior tight end Ryan Hanney.
Husson took the lead for good midway through the fourth quarter after Soyini downed an Eagles punt at the Union 1 to give his team a crucial field-position advantage.
Union went three-and-out before Husson marched 54 yards in eight plays with Smith scoring from the 1 with 7:59 left in the game. Smith rushed on six of the eight plays during the drive, covering 36 yards.
Union drove inside the Husson 30 on its next possession before the Eagles stopped the New York-based Liberty League entry on downs, with Guillaume tipping away a fourth-down pass attempt.
The Dutchmen had two subsequent possessions but were unable to reach Husson territory, their last chance ending as Soyini undercut Union receiver Griffin Beal for his interception at the Union 35 with 1:31 left.
Smith scored Husson’s final touchdown from 1 yard out with 11.9 seconds remaining.