September 12, 2012

Dressed for success

More news about: Utica
Andrew Benkwitt
Andrew Benkwitt has been the starting quarterback since he arrived at Utica. Last year, the Pioneers won more than one conference game for just the third time in the program's history.
Photo by Green Couch Studios for Utica athletics

Curt Fitzpatrick could have mentioned the records. After all, Andrew Benkwitt does hold virtually all of the Utica career passing records.

Instead, the Pioneers' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach opted for a more personal tale in describing the most productive signal caller to ever don a Utica jersey. 

"Andrew's the only recruit I've ever seen that showed up on a day visit in a three-piece pinstripe suit," Fitzpatrick recalls. "He's the most well-dressed recruit we've ever had."

Well dressed and ready to impress. And boy, has he impressed.

Since arriving as a freshman at Utica in 2009, all Benkwitt has done is start every game (32 so far), rewrite the record book (he holds the career marks in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns, among most others) and, perhaps most importantly, play an integral role in building a culture of accountability in a program that hasn't always had it.

"He's never late to a meeting, he's the most prepared player to play, he's always to first one in the office on a Monday asking about the game plan for the next week," Fitzpatrick said. "He's so focused on each opponent, and since he's been here, that's kind of trickled down to some of the other players and he's kind of led us in that way."

It's this work ethic that has simultaneously helped Benkwitt cement himself as one of, if not the best, pure pocket passer in the Empire 8, and Utica continuously improve each season. In Benkwitt's first season, Utica finished 4-6 with no wins in the E8. As a sophomore, Benkwitt directed the team to a 5-5 mark, but again with no conference wins. Last season, the Pioneers again finished 5-5, but finally shook the conference woes by beating Ithaca and Hartwick.

Now, Benkwitt has started writing his final act. So far, he has the Pioneers sitting at 2-0 after impressive wins over regional opponents St. Lawrence and Union. Through the two games -- which Utica won by 33 and 28 points, respectively -- Benkwitt has thrown for 615 yards and eight touchdowns with just one interception.

A home matchup against No. 14 Hobart this Saturday night looms large. But at this point, nothing seems too large for former Empire 8 and ECAC Rookie of the Year. There's very little he hasn't seen on a college football field.

"He's a calming influence on the field, for sure," Fitzpatrick said. "Because he's got so much experience, more than just throwing the ball to our receivers, it's getting us in and out of good and bad run situations, checking protections, being able to handle all the things that happen during a game that you might not be able to always practice for."

The 6-2, 205-pound Benkwitt looks the part of a prototypical quarterback. He admittedly describes himself as a pocket passer, but says he will scramble when the situation presents itself. That's been even more true this season, where Benkwitt has rushed for 68 yards through two games. Against Union, Benkwitt ran three times -- all on third-and-8 or longer situations. He converted them all.

"When stuff is going wrong out there, any quarterback, no matter what age you are, they're kind of the guys you look to because they're the guys that are in charge of the offense," Benkwitt said. "I've been working ... to stay better poised when stuff isn't going the right way, but also let people know we need to pick it up, or areas we're slacking in."

Benkwitt, one of 26 seniors in what head coach Blaise Faggiano considers his staff's first full recruiting class, has seen the program grow in his four years. Little things, like weight room improvements, to big things, like new jerseys, night games and occasional televised games. But Benkwitt remains focused on getting Utica to a postseason game, something the program has yet to do since its inception in 2001.

Faggiano and Fitzpatrick can see the impact Benkwitt has on his teammates. The senior isn't always the most vocal leader, but when he speaks, players listen. Fitzpatrick said Benwkitt is always the first to congratulate and first to offer advice to the rest of his "pumpkin patch" members (Benwkitt coined the phrase for the quarterbacks, which wear distinctive orange jerseys in practice).

Off the field, Benkwitt, who was also a standout baseball player at Mamaroneck High School in Mamaroneck, N.Y., is something of a modern-day renaissance man. As a criminal justice major, he has already been accepted into the NYPD's academy program. In following in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncle, Benkwitt said he hopes to eventually become an investigator, chief of police or work as a liaison for a federal agency.

Over the last few summers though, Benkwitt has fulfilled another one of his loves at a West Chester County golf course -- golf course management. This past summer he served as assistant superintendent. 

"Talk about a competitor," Faggiano said. "He was upset because he split the course -- he had nine holes, the guy that was kind of his boss usually had the other nine. With the dry weather, the other guy was slacking and Andrew's nine holes looked a lot better is what he told me."

But his true secret talent lies in his disc jockey abilities: "He's quite the DJ. ... He could do your wedding," Faggiano said.

When Utica was planning a trip north to Quebec for spring ball in Benkwitt's sophomore year, he helped organize a fundraiser to raise money for teammates that needed the help with the extra travel expenses. So, along with left guard Tom Owens, Benkwitt organized a dance in the gym on campus. Benkwitt and Owens spun the ones and twos, and the team raised the necessary money.

All this from a quarterback that, as Fitzpatrick is quick to point out, will likely finish his career with 10,000-plus passing yards. In taking inventory of what he's accomplished, it's fair to ask whether Benkwitt is overlooked and underappreciated.

"I don't sit back and get irritated at the fact that I wasn't recognized," Benkwitt said. "I just use it as fuel towards me to do even better. I'm not a person who likes to sit back and rack up the accolades. If they come, that's great and they're nice and whatnot, but it's a personal achievement. ... That's not who I am."

If Utica continues its stellar start, people will take notice. They've been missing out on a good one. 

Surprise, surprise: Brockport State, Lebanon Valley 2-0

After two weeks, only one NJAC team has emerged with a perfect 2-0 mark. It's not Kean, last year's conference champion. It's not annual contenders Rowan or Montclair State. And it's not preseason favorite Cortland State. It's Brockport State.

Brockport followed its season-opening win over Lycoming with a 38-24 win over Buffalo State, a team coming off its own impressive win over Cortland, on Saturday. It's still too early to make a projection for any team for the rest of the season, but, at least in Brockport's case, the numbers don't lie. The Golden Eagles already have two wins -- they've only won five combined in the last two seasons. The defense has been nothing short of stellar so far. Brockport's defense shut out Lycoming's offense in the opener (Lycoming scored two points on a safety). The Golden Eagles held the Bengals to just 26 rushing yards on 20 carries and intercepted quarterback Casey Kacz twice, including one that Colby Morabito returned 25 yards for a touchdown.

Senior quarterback Joe Scibilia, who threw for 374 yards and three touchdowns against Buffalo State, has been tremendous so far this season, earning NJAC offensive player of the week honors each of the last two weeks. And the Golden Eagles have maintained a nice balance on offense, getting 190 rushing yards and a pair of scores from sophomore running back Tyrone Nichols through the first two games.

Of course, it's still early. Can Brockport State maintain this pace? The last time the team started 2-0 in 2009, it lost six of its next eight games to finish 4-6. The Golden Eagles are shooting to replicate the 2003 season, where they started 6-0 en route to a 9-2 season. Brockport's next three games come against TCNJ, Kean and Rowan, so we'll find out soon what to expect.

Another surprise 2-0 team, though to a lesser degree than Brockport, is Lebanon Valley. The Flying Dutchmen have won 23 games over the last three seasons, so a strong start wasn't out of the question. But concerns loomed for a team that had to replace star running back Ben Guiles. So far, so good.

After an impressive season-opening win against Montclair State on the road, Lebanon Valley followed that with a rout of first-year program Misericordia this past weekend. Senior Pete Panichi has seen the majority of the carries out of the backfield, rushing for 210 yards on 38 carries through the first two weeks. Panichi was particularly effective in the opener, pounding Montclair State for 137 yards on 26 carries. 

The Dutchmen defeated the Cougars by 40 points and, in the process, joined Albright, Widener and Lycoming atop the MAC standings. Lebanon Valley travels to Lycoming this Saturday for a key early-season showdown.

"We're 1-0 and in first place in the conference -- that's the way we look at it," coach Jim Monos said on the school's athletics website. "We need to take a look at some of the things we did today, but overall I thought we executed well. Lyco is a tough place to go and play. We'll have to be ready."

Widener keeps rolling, Albright keeps winning

Widener and Albright are both 2-0, but it's been a considerably more stressful path for the Lions. 

After holding on to edge Kean 29-26 in the opener, Albright needed overtime to secure a 29-22 win against Stevenson. Widener, on the other hand, has made quick work of its first two opponents, beating Western Connecticut by 46 points and King's by 35 points. This isn't altogether shocking, considering Widener is challenging for a MAC title and Western Connecticut and King's are young teams building for the future. But it's interesting nonetheless. Wins are wins, after all.

The Albright-Stevenson game provided one of the top finishes we've had so far this season. After Anthony Reid scored on an 8-yard touchdown run to put Stevenson up 22-19 in the final minute, Albright quarterback T.J. Luddy moved the Lions 38 yards in six plays to set up Dan Sobolewski's game-tying 47-yard field goal as time expired in regulation.

Luddy then connected with Scott Pillar for a 13-yard TD strike on the Lions' first possession in overtime. Albright's defense held Reid and Stevenson scoreless to secure the win.

Chris Haupt threw for 205 yards and four touchdowns, including two to dynamic sophomore Anthony Davis, in Widener's win. Defensively, the Pride also forced three interceptions and scored a touchdown on a 45-yard fumble return by Dylan Ditmer. It was a dominating overall performance by a team with realistic playoff aspirations this season.

East region gets a taste of the best

Two of the top four teams in the country took on Around the East region teams this past weekend. Salisbury, itself a top-10 team, dropped a hard-fought battle with No. 3 Wesley for the second straight season. Kean lost to No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor 34-7. It's a treat to watch either Wesley or Mary Hardin-Baylor play, simply because you know you're watching a team that figures to be playing into December.

Salisbury matched Wesley in terms of yards and first downs, but was done in by four turnovers, including three Dan Griffin interceptions. Ross Flanigan led all players with 138 rushing yards on 12 carries, but the Wolverines bottled up the usually potent Griffin, holding him to just five yards on 11 carries. Wesley, which lost to Mount Union in the semifinals last season, again looks like a team capable of reaching the final four. But Salisbury has established itself as a team that, on its best day, can do just the same.

Kean has taught a much stiffer lesson from Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Cougars managed only 180 total yards and eight first downs, compared to 517 yards and 26 first downs for the Crusaders. Mary Hardin-Baylor is bona fide NCAA championship contender. Kean is not. But the humbling loss will only help Kean moving forward. And the play of Deandre Fowlkes -- one carry for 44 yards, six catches for 33 yards and three kickoff returns for 138 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown -- was certainly something to build off of.

East region fans will get a look at the cream of the crop this week when Buffalo State travels to face three-time defending national champion UW-Whitewater. The Bengals can't realistically be expected to win that game, but there is something to be said for playing the best. It doesn't get any better than Whitewater at the Division III level.

Liberty League bounces back

The first week wasn't a banner performance for the Liberty League. Only Hobart and WPI recorded wins in a week that saw the conference go just 2-4 in non-conference competition.

Week Two was considerably better -- 5-3 overall with Merchant Marine, Springfield, Rochester and RPI all notching its first victories of the season. Hobart, the strongest Liberty League team, improved to 2-0 with a 28-7 win over Geneva. The Statesmen again routed an opponent behind a strong defensive performance. 

Nolan Toran and Tom Elder each blocked Geneva punts that set up 1-yard Nick Strang touchdown runs. Strang also threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Junior Woodard in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.

Springfield got its triple-option offense cranking against Husson, piling up 457 yards on the ground en route to a 36-2 win. Joel Altavesta led the way with 116 yards and score, but seven players rushed for at least 33 yards. That's how Springfield beats you, with wave after wave.

Dean Kennedy tossed a pair of first-quarter touchdowns and Rochester's defense held Thiel to just seven points as the Yellowjackets opened their season with a win. Kennedy threw for 151 yards and rushed for another 72 in a solid all-around effort.

Top 25: Hobart continues ascent

Hobart climbed four spots, from No. 18 to No. 14, in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll. Salisbury (No. 7) slipped one spot, while St. John Fisher held steady at No. 9.

Widener moved up three slots to No. 22. Rowan, Kean, Albright, Lebanon Valley and Brockport State all received votes.

Rowan and Delaware Valley fell out of the Top 25 after 0-2 starts. Delaware Valley's fall, in particular, has been rough. The Aggies were ranked ninth in the preseason and, just two weeks later, didn't receive a single vote.

Quick hits

Wide receiver Jason Beaumont finished with 116 yards on two receptions, both fourth-quarter touchdowns, as St. John Fisher rallied past Washington and Jefferson, 28-24. Beaumont, who pitched a complete-game win over eventual national champion Marietta in the NCAA regionals this past spring for the Fisher baseball team, scored from 25 yards out early in the fourth quarter, and again on a 91-yard strike from Rob Kramer to put the Cardinals ahead. ... Tyler Jenny tossed a pair of TD passes to Jarrin Campman as Lycoming knocked off Delaware Valley 24-14. Nate Oropollo was dominant, collecting four of Lycoming's six sacks on the day. The loss was the Aggies' second in as many weeks, and comes one year after the team finished the regular season a perfect 10-0. ... Mike Hermann threw for 213 yards and two scores and rushed for another 80 yards to lead RPI to a 24-6 win against Alfred in both teams' season opener. The RPI defense sacked Alfred quarterback Zach Sopak four times and intercepted him three times. ... John-Leon Gosselin rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns in Merchant Marine's 43-37 win against Coast Guard. Alex Coviello added 100 yards and a score as the Mariners piled up just shy of 400 yards rushing. ... Daniel Dugan threw for 308 yards and a pair of scores to lead TCNJ past FDU-Florham 45-28. ... Hartwick's defense forced five turnovers and Mike Mathews tossed three touchdown passes as the Hawks routed Morrisville State 36-7. ... A.J. Scoppa rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown in Montclair State's 16-7 loss to Salve Regina.

Looking ahead

Lebanon Valley (2-0) will try to remain undefeated when it faces Lycoming (1-1) in a key MAC matchup at 1 p.m. Saturday. Lycoming bounced back from a poor performance in its opener with an impressive road win against Delaware Valley. Lebanon Valley ran past Misericordia after defeating Montclair State in its opener.

Two early contenders in the NJAC will clash when Brockport State (2-0) hosts TCNJ (1-1) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Brockport has nearly matched its win total from all of 2011 through two weeks, while TCNJ bounced back from a season-opening loss to Ursinus.

If you're looking for the best matchup featuring two East region teams this week, you'll want to pay attention when Utica (2-0) hosts No. 14 Hobart (2-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday night. Hobart's hot start comes as little surprise, but Utica has looked strong as well. A win here would be a banner victory for the Pioneers.

Other games of note: Delaware Valley (0-2) at Stevenson (0-2), 1 p.m., Saturday; North Carolina Wesleyan (1-1) at Salisbury, 1 p.m., Saturday; Buffalo State (1-1) at UW-Whitewater (1-0), 2 p.m., Saturday; Rochester (1-0) at St. John Fisher (2-0), 7 p.m., Saturday

Contact me

I'm always happy to hear from you, whether its questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me atandrew.lovell@d3sports.com. You can also follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell), and be sure to get involved in the discussions on the Around the East thread on the message board.

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Andrew Lovell

Andrew Lovell is an associate news editor for ESPN.com and a former sports staff writer/editor for the New Britain Herald (Conn.). He has contributed freelance work to ESPN Rise and has been a regular contributor to D3football.com since 2007. Andrew has also written for a number of daily newspapers in New York, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ithaca Journal and Auburn Citizen. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 with B.A. in Sport Media and a minor in writing. A native of Hyde Park, N.Y., Andrew currently resides in New Britain. 

2006-10 columnist: Adam Samrov 

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