|Two years removed from their
worst season since the 1960s, Ithaca has earned itself a playoff
spot and is riding high going into the rivalry game against
Ithaca College Athletic Communications
Will Carter pushed through the wall of defenders, straining as hard as he could to get a hand -- hell, even a fingertip -- on the football.
He couldn't do it.
Carter turned around just in time to see the extra point attempt by Salisbury kicker Zak Osborne sail wide left. That failed kick sealed Ithaca's 24-23 overtime win over the Sea Gulls, clinched the team's first Empire 8 title and NCAA berth since 2008 and validated Carter's long, often painful road back to the field.
"I was just in shock," Carter said. "I dropped to my knees and I could not believe it. I could not believe we just won like that."
One of the knees Carter dropped to in celebratory shock was shredded last September, and if not for that, Carter wouldn't have been on the field for Saturday's win. The irony in that hasn't escaped the fifth-year senior linebacker.
Carter suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), partially torn medial collateral ligmament (MCL), partially torn posterolateral corner (PLC) and a hyperextension in his left knee after a low block by a Utica offensive lineman on Sept. 29, 2012, Ithaca's fourth game of last season.
Such serious damage can often -- and usually does -- require surgery, but Carter began healing rapidly. Within two weeks of the injury, the swelling in the knee had subsided. Doctors felt Carter could rehabilitate his injuries without surgery.
"I really pushed my rehab," Carter said. "There was not a day where I didn't do at least four hours of rehab."
Carter's medical redshirt was approved in mid-January and he was back on the field for spring practice. Assuming Carter had been able to play last season -- and assuming Ithaca finished with the same 6-4 record -- Carter would have closed out a four-year career that included a 23-17 overall record, a 12-12 Empire 8 record, and exactly zero postseason appearances.
But Carter, a two-time captain, returned for a fifth season and, from the start of spring practice, saw a renewed dedication and enthusiasm in a proud program trying to pull out of a mediocre stretch.
"We were just tired of it," Carter said. "We were tired of coming up short."
Ithaca has turned those close losses into wins this season. The Bombers' eight victories are the program's most since 2008 (9-2), which, not coincidentally, was the team's last NCAA playoff appearance. After bottoming out in 2011 with a 4-6 season -- the team's first losing record since 1969 -- Ithaca needed just two seasons to return to the playoffs with a roster featuring many of the same players.
"We really care a lot about the tradition of our program," said senior cornerback Mike Vulcano, who leads the team with four interceptions. "We wanted to be remembered as one of the better teams that was here and one of the teams that put Ithaca back on the map."
What the Bombers have been able to do this season -- which includes impressive wins against Buffalo State, Alfred, St. John Fisher and Salisbury -- seems even more impressive given their list of key injuries.
Senior captain and starting quarterback Phil Neumann has played only four games because of an injury to his throwing arm. Senior Rakim Jones and junior Tommy Padula, the team's top two running backs, have both missed games. Senior linebacker Jake Santora, the team's leading tackler, is out for the season.
And yet the team can plug in junior Tom Dempsey under center and freshman Evan Skea, who was added off the JV team, at running back and continue to chug along.
"It's not by accident, it certainly is by design," longtime coach Mike Welch said. "We know the importance of depth and the importance of really developing your depth."
Dempsey, in particular, has been impressive in leading the Bombers' balanced offense. He's completed 60.1 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns against five interceptions and shown an ability to improvise on his feet when he needs to. Unlike past seasons, the offense doesn't feature a dominant ball carrier or pass catcher.
"We don't really have a star player," Vulcano said. "If you look on both sides of the ball, I don't think we have someone that's really sticking out statistically. ... What it is is there's a new star every week."
Carter (82 tackles, team-high six sacks) has led a defense that ranks 34th in the country in total defense (296 yards per game) and 18th in scoring defense (13.7 points per game). Santora's loss will hurt, no doubt. But Vulcano said fifth-year senior Josh Duggan and senior Brandon Cheeseman, the two most likely to fill in at linebacker for Santora, have both been preparing for crucial roles.
Ithaca seems to have so much depth this season, it even boasts two above-average kickers. Junior Garrett Nicholson (8-of-9 field goals, 17-of-20 extra points) handles the extra points and short-to-moderate field goals, while sophomore Max Rottenecker (5-of-7 field goals) handles kickoffs and long-range field goals. Both have been consistent for a Bombers team that, unlike previous seasons, lacks any obvious weakness.
Though Ithaca has clinched a trip to the playoffs, it will hardly be resting starters in the regular-season finale this Saturday. Rival Cortland State is already eliminated from the playoff race, but the Bombers' seeding can still be impacted. Of more interest to the players, Carter is the only Bomber with a Cortaca Jug win to his name. The Red Dragons have won the last three meetings.
"People find out you play for Ithaca or Cortland, the first thing they ask is, 'Oh, you're part of that Cortaca game. Did you win?'" Carter said. " ... It's just another thing that's bothered us. The first question people ask and then you've got to tell them, 'Yeah, we lost that game.' We don't want to do that anymore."
Painting the playoff picture
Automatic bid: Ithaca. The Bombers wrapped up their first Empire 8 title and NCAA berth since 2008 with their 24-23 overtime win over Salisbury last Saturday. Ithaca still has a home game against Cortland State in its annual Cortaca Jug matchup, which could help or hurt their standing in the regional rankings. The Bombers have won five straight, and their eight wins represent the most since that 2008 playoff team.
Potential Pool C bid(s): Alfred or St. John Fisher. Both teams are 7-2 overall, but face each other in the regular season finale. That, essentially, makes the head-to-head matchup a playoff game. Alfred and St. John Fisher are tied for seventh in the latest regional rankings, which were released Wednesday. Whichever team wins this game will certainly earn a boost.
Automatic bid: Hobart. No surprise here. The Statesmen rolled to their third straight Liberty League title and once again appeared poised for a deep playoff run. Hobart routed St. Lawrence 37-7 this past Saturday behind Steven Webb's 90 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Tyre Coleman tallied a pair of sacks, and Hobart's dominant defense shut down the upstart Saints. Hobart closes the regular season at Rochester with a chance to win its 15th straight in Liberty League play.
Potential Pool C bid(s): None. St. Lawrence could finish 7-3 overall, but it ranked just 10th in the first regional rankings, and had fallen out of the top 10 in the second set of rankings.
Automatic bid: Lebanon Valley, Widener or Lycoming. Lebanon Valley is in the driver's seat. If the Flying Dutchmen beat Albright, they will book a trip to the NCAA playoffs for the first time in program history. Widener and Lycoming, however, can still move in and earn the automatic bid. Here's a quick look at the scenarios: Lebanon Valley could lose and still clinch the bid with a Widener loss to Delaware Valley; Lycoming can clinch the bid with a win and losses by both Lebanon Valley and Delaware Valley; Widener can clinch the bid with a win and losses by Lebanon Valley and Lycoming.
Potential Pool C bid(s): Lebanon Valley. Though three teams can still clinch the playoff bid, Lebanon Valley remains the best bet to earn a Pool C bid if it falls short in the conference. The Dutchmen were third in the East in the second regional rankings released.
Automatic bid: Rowan or Brockport State. If Rowan defeats TCNJ, it will clinch the NJAC title and the automatic NCAA bid. If the Profs fall and Brockport State defeats Morrisville State on the road, then the Golden Eagles would earn the automatic bid. Rowan won the head-to-head matchup between the two teams, which gives the Profs the leg up.
Potential Pool C bid(s): Rowan. If the Profs lose and Brockport State moves in to clinch the automatic bid, Rowan could still sneak in as a Pool C team. It's not likely though, at 7-3, though they did qualify last season after finishing 7-2 overall. Rowan is ranked fourth in the latest regional rankings.
Matt Naton passed for 293 yards and two touchdowns -- both to Ryan Sweet -- as St. John Fisher defeated Buffalo State, 24-6. Zach Hildebrand tallied a pair of sacks on defense for the Cardinals, who held the Bengals scoreless until the game's final minute. ... John Grassi passed for 347 yards and four touchdowns, Dylan Peebles rushed for 171 yards and three scores, and Justin Autera added 133 yards on the ground in Cortland State's 62-49 shootout victory over Morrisville State. Lemar Johnson collected 396 yards and five touchdowns through the air in the loss. ... Tim O'Brien rushed for 129 yards and three scores as Springfield knocked off RPI, 35-28. ... Tyler Johnson finished with 342 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns to lift Alfred past Utica, 48-31. ... Aaron Wilmer connected with Rasheed Bailey on a 19-yard touchdown pass in the final two minutes of regulation to lift Delaware Valley to a 31-27 win over Wilkes. ... Nick Becker passed for 308 yards and two touchdowns in Union's 27-14 win over Merchant Marine. Matt McDaniels rushed for 177 yards and two scores in the loss for Merchant Marine. ... John Garcia passed for 314 yards and three touchdowns -- two to Tanner Williams and one to Frankie Molina -- as Hartwick cruised past Frostburg State, 41-14. ... Albright defeated Misericordia, 42-19, behind Ty Hughes' 136 rushing yards and one touchdown. T.J. Luddy connected with Daniel McNair on two of his three touchdown passes in the win. ... Sam Paladino and Craig Cicardo each tossed two touchdown passes in TCNJ's 27-3 win over William Paterson. ... Zach Grasis rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns as WPI snapped a four-game losing streak with a 31-21 win against Rochester.
Top 25: Ithaca, Lebanon Valley move up
Ithaca jumped to No. 20 and Lebanon Valley moved up to No. 22 in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll.
Hobart held steady at No. 7 for another week.
St. John Fisher and Rowan both received votes in this week's poll.
Cortland State (5-4, 5-2) at No. 20 Ithaca (8-1, 6-1), noon, Saturday: One of college football's best rivalries has become one-sided in recent years. Cortland State has won three straight against Ithaca, its longest streak since three straight from 1966-68.
No. 22 Lebanon Valley (8-1, 7-1) at Albright (6-3, 5-3), 1 p.m., Saturday: For Lebanon Valley, it's simple -- win, and it clinches its first-ever NCAA playoff berth. A loss wouldn't eliminate them, but it would certainly complicate things.
TCNJ (5-4, 4-2) at Rowan (7-2, 5-1), 7 p.m., Saturday: Rowan, like Lebanon Valley, controls its own destiny. If the Profs beat TCNJ, they will be headed to the playoffs as NJAC champions.
Other games of note: Alfred (7-2, 5-1) at St. John Fisher (7-2, 4-2), 1 p.m., Saturday; Widener (6-3, 6-2) at Delaware Valley (6-3, 5-3), 1 p.m., Saturday; Lycoming (6-3, 6-2) at Stevenson (4-5, 3-5), 1 p.m., Saturday; Brockport State (6-3, 5-1) at Morrisville State (3-6, 2-4), 1 p.m., Saturday.