The football team entered this season with a goal, which was to win the Mid-American Conference.
Some might have thought the goal was a lofty one, being this was the Owls’ first season as full-fledged members of the conference. They were coming off of an 1-11 campaign the previous year.
But coach Al Golden did not flinch.
“The expectations were high this year,” Golden said. “No matter who we play we expect to play well, and we expect to win.”
Yes, the Owls did indeed fall short of their goal. They are not the 2007 MAC champions and they won’t play in Saturday’s MAC championship game.
But they did win four games this season, marking the first time since 2002 the Owls have done that. All four wins came against teams in the MAC.
At the onset of the season, it seemed as if it would be another one of those years for the Owls. After dropping their opener to Navy, 30-19, the Owls were demolished by Buffalo, 42-7.
Then the Owls traveled to East Hartford, Conn., to take on a 3-0 Connecticut team. The Huskies were clinging to a 22-17 lead as the Owls faced fourth-and-goal. The stage was set for them to clinch their first win of the season.
Golden repeatedly counts the Connecticut game as a victory in his book.
“We won four [games] and we had another one up at Connecticut which makes five [wins],” Golden said.
The play was a trick play, as quarterback Adam DiMichele tossed a pitch to wide receiver Dy’Onne Crudup, a former high school quarterback. Crudup tossed a heave to the back of the end zone where the ball was hauled in by wide receiver Bruce Francis. Yet, the referees ruled Francis’ foot was out-of-bounds and the Owls were shorted of their first win of the young season.
The Owls proceeded to drop their next two games to Bowling Green and Army, respectively.
So, the Owls stood at 0-5 with an all-important stretch of conference games on tap in the following weeks.
Instead of going into the next game with the same attitude, the Owls’ captains called a players-only team meeting. With that meeting came changes.
The Owls embarked on a three-game winning streak filled with drama.
The Owls did not score an offensive touchdown in their first win of the season. Junior defensive tackle Terrance Knighton made a big play, a common theme on the season, scooping a fumble recovery and taking it 66 yards for a touchdown. Sophomore Jake Brownell nailed his third field goal of the game, a 39-yarder with nine seconds remaining, to give the Owls their second consecutive homecoming win.
The field goal would not have happened without the improvisational wizardry of DiMichele. He led the Owls on the 12-play, 56-yard drive and showed his ability to perform during crunch time.
The next week only meant more dramatics for the Owls. This time, the Owls found themselves on the short end of 20-3 score entering the fourth quarter. But DiMichele put the team on his back and the defense really stiffened in the final stanza.
DiMichele, showing the moxie that Golden repeatedly insisted he owns, tossed three fourth-quarter scores, including a 19-yard strike to Crudup with just 29 seconds remaining. The Owls came out on top, 24-20.
The next win came with a price. DiMichele went down in a heap just in front of his own goal line in the second quarter against Miami (Ohio). He suffered a fracture of his left tibia and missed the rest of the season.
Sophomore Vaughn Charlton stepped in and led the team to its third consecutive victory.
The defense played well the entire season and finished first in the MAC in total defense, but couldn’t support the team by itself.
The offense scored only 34 points in the four games after DiMichele’s injury, and the Owls only won one of those games.
But Charlton’s performance wasn’t the sole reason for the struggles.
The Owls rushing game, or lack thereof, was a huge factor in their 1-3 record down the stretch.
The Owls averaged 72.5 rushing yards in their final four outings. But those numbers can be deceiving, as the Owls gained a only four rushing yards against Penn State and torched Kent State for 184 yards.
“Obviously we have some work to do on offense and with the kicking game and we’ll handle that in the offseason,” Golden said.
Freshman linebacker Amara Kamara, who finished up his freshman year with 71 tackles and one interception, said his team’s performance throughout the year can be viewed from two sides.
“We won four games this year and that’s better than last season,” Kamara said. “But we still had opportunities to win more games. We have to get ready for next year and we have to get ready to come out and play.”
Knighton, who should receive all-conference consideration, said the team wants to take one key step for next season.
“We want to go from competing in every game to winning every game,” Knighton said. “We competed in every game, with the exception of two, and we just want to move from competitive football to winning football.”
Sophomore cornerback Anthony Ferla said improvements were made but the team will continue to focus on getting better.
“Right now were plus-3 from last year,” said Ferla, a team captain. “All we’re going to talk about is improving from this year and finishing in November.”
And if they make as many strides as they did this season, the team may be playing for a bowl bid in November.
Or maybe even in December.
Terrance McNeil can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.