November 25, 2010

At least he's got his health

More news about: Alfred | Cortland
Dan Pitcher, Matt Wutzer
Cortland quarterback Dan Pitcher, right, used to have his brother, Matt, in front of him. But his season ended with an injury and Mike Wutzer, left, now plays right guard.
Photo by Matt Milless, d3photography.com

By Andrew Lovell
for D3football.com

Cortland State quarterback Dan Pitcher has a lot more to be thankful for this Thanksgiving than a heaping plate of turkey and stuffing.

His team is in the second round of the NCAA playoffs, he has a starting job and, finally, he has his health.

Up until this season, it seemed like the injury bug had not just bitten Pitcher, but latched on for good.

A lingering hamstring injury stalled his first year of collegiate football at Division I Colgate in 2005. After two more years at Colgate, which included one more redshirt than passes thrown in a regular season game for Pitcher, the 6-foot, 200-pound right-handed signal caller transferred to his hometown college, Cortland State.

In his first season with the Red Dragons in 2008, Pitcher completed 15 of his 25 passes as Ray Miles' backup. Miles graduated the following spring, leaving the starting job Pitcher's to lose.

As it turns out, it would be taken from him. The injury bug bit again.

During the fourth quarter of Cortland's second game of the season, a win against Rowan, Pitcher settled in the pocket and looked to run up the middle on a quarterback draw. When he planted his feet, Pitcher collapsed. The impact was enough to severely damage his Achilles’ tendon, once again ending his season prematurely because of an injury.

It also set off a game of musical chairs, Cortland State-quarterback style. The Red Dragons went through two other starters and three other signal-callers total in a disappointing 7-4 season.

It's hardly a coincidence that with a healthy Pitcher, Cortland has improved to 10-1 and, with a win Saturday against Alfred, could match its deepest playoff run in school history.

"Dan's really a mature guy," said Cortland State head coach Dan MacNeill. "... It's not easy to deal with what he has. I know he's enjoying this year."

As well he should be. Pitcher's numbers (137-for-239, 1,583 yards, 16 touchdowns, nine interceptions) won't wow you on the surface. But it's certainly noteworthy that Pitcher's 16 touchdowns are tied for fifth most in school history for a single season.

Pitcher also established a school record by throwing a touchdown in 11 consecutive games, a streak that started at the end of the 2009 season and came to an end in a win against Ithaca in this year's Cortaca Jug matchup.

"He can certainly throw a pretty ball, but I think the decisions Dan makes are his strongest suit," MacNeill said. "Our offensive coordinator [Greg Roskos] will sometimes say [Pitcher] thinks too much. But really it's like having another coach out there."

Pitcher might win pretty – 13-for-21, 224 yards, four touchdowns against The College of New Jersey – and he might win ugly – 4-for-14, 63 yards, one touchdown against William Paterson – but he wins. Period.

Cortland is 12-1 in games started by the 23-year-old Pitcher, who even still has one more year of eligibility left after this season. For that mark to improve to 13-1, Pitcher will likely have to put together a solid game against a capable Alfred squad. But he won't have to do it all by himself.

D.J. Romano
D.J. Romano's interception helped keep Ithaca at bay in the fourth quarter of the Cortaca Jug game.
Photo by Matt Milless, d3photography.com

Speedy sophomore running back Justin Autera should give the Saxons plenty to worry about.

In his first season as starter, Autera has done things rarely – if ever – seen by a Cortland player. His 1,324 rushing yards rank third on Cortland's single-season list, while his 18 rushing touchdowns rank second. Autera also established a Cortaca Jug record by rushing for 232 yards, the most by any player from either school in the rivalry's 50-plus year history.

"He's just electric with the ball," MacNeill said of Autera, the NJAC's co-offensive player of the year. "He's got incredible speed. For him to win [offensive player of the year] as a sophomore is really a great accomplishment."

And he’s done it without one prominent offensive line starter, Dan Pitcher’s brother, Matt Pitcher, who started at right guard but was lost for the season after an injury in the loss to Rowan on Oct. 16.

Alfred counters with its own stud underclassman running back in freshman Austin Dwyer.

Coming into the season, Alfred coach Dave Murray wasn't sure how his team would replace the production of Vinson Hendrix, the second-leading rusher in school history. He figured it would take two, maybe three backs to rotate the carries.

It quickly became evident that Dwyer wasn't interested in sharing.

Dwyer broke out with 168 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a key win against Springfield in the Saxons' third game and never looked back. Through 11 games this season, Dwyer has 1,204 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.

"Austin just emerged against Springfield," Murray said. "I think one of the best things about Austin is that he plays his best against the best opponents."

Dwyer piled up 162 yards on the ground in a key win against St. John Fisher and gashed Ithaca for 273 yards in an Empire 8 title-clinching win late in the season.

Dwyer will face his stiffest test yet against Cortland, which boasts one of the country's top defenses.

Cortland's scoring defense (10.3 points per game) and total defense (226.3 yards per game) both rank fifth in the country. Cortland also only allows an average of 78.8 yards per game on the ground, good for 16th in the country.

On paper it would appear to be a classic case of an immovable object against an unstoppable force.

"Defensively, they're one of the best in country, without question," Murray said. "There's no doubt in my mind that it will come down to who wins the line of scrimmage, controls the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense. That will be critical."

One week after the Red Dragons lost Pitcher for the season in 2009, they lost their anchor on the defensive line, Lou Crispo.

But the 6-foot-1, 280-pound defensive tackle has made up for lost time with a dominant season, collecting 54 tackles and four of Cortland State's school-record nine blocked kicks.

Along with senior defensive end Evan Wyler, who has overcome the severe limitations of lingering knee problems to post 48 tackles and one and a half sacks, the Red Dragons have no shortage of inspiring stories.

"Evan's been limited pretty much all year because of the knee injury," MacNeill said. "It's been tough on him emotionally. He's one of those guys that will be watching practice and say, 'Coach, I can [play].' And goddammit he just might. He's that type of kid."

Aside from the usual bumps and bruises that come with playing this deep into the season, the Saxons are healthy. Alfred, led by junior quarterback Tom Secky (197-for-319, 2,429 yards, 25 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) and senior wide receiver Ryan Thon (66 receptions, 871 yards, 15 touchdowns), has finally tasted a win in the NCAA playoffs – last week's 60-0 romp over SUNY Maritime was the first playoff win in school. Now the team is focused on becoming a perennial threat.

"Last year I think there was a certain amount of excitement to just be there," Murray said. "It's always great to qualify. The team had never won an NCAA game, so that was important. ... But certainly this is where we want to be every year."

The Cortland-Alfred winner will advance to face the Mount Union-Delaware Valley College winner. Mount Union ended Cortland's best season with a 41-14 win over the Red Dragons in the 2008 NCAA quarterfinals.

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