It took a perfect storm of bad luck and devastating injuries for West Chester to lose their only game of the season. Coming off an emotional high from beating Slippery Rock University in the PSAC Championship game, the previously undefeated Golden Rams fell flat and were eliminated from the NCAA tournament with a 35-28 loss to the New Haven Chargers at Farrell stadium on Saturday.
West Chester was dealt a terrible blow when their star Quarterback, A.J Long, left the game early in the 4th quarter due to a hip injury. Long’s backup, Paul Dooley, was also injured, so the Golden Rams turned to third string first-year, Mike Piperno, who was unable to engineer a comeback in the games’ final minutes.
“I’m pretty stunned,” Senior Running Back Mike Class said about the loss. “I thought we were the best team in the whole nation.”
Even before Long’s injury, West Chester wasn’t playing like their typical dominant selves. West Chester’s top ranked defense allowed a season high 35 points, and struggled to stop opposing quarterback Ajee Patterson, who threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns.
“Obviously, [it’s] a very disappointing loss after what had been a really great season,” Head Coach Bill Zwaan said. “Give New Haven a ton of credit. Nobody really did that to our defense all year … we just didn’t have the fire in us today.”
The pivotal moment of the game occurred when Patterson threw a screen pass to beat the Golden Rams’ aggressive pass rush on fourth and three at the start of the fourth quarter. The short pass was caught by Ju’an Williams who ran it in 48 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 28-28.
“[They used] just a lot of quick stuff because they probably knew that our defensive line was going to get a lot of pressure,” defensive lineman D’Quan Gilbert said. Gilbert terrorized New Haven’s backfield all afternoon with three sacks.
While the game ended in disappointment, the contest started out very promising for West Chester. In the first quarter, Long was unstoppable, completing six passes in six attempts for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Long’s first big completion was a strike to tight end, Dan Neuhaus, who shook off defenders after the catch for a 29-yard gain. Long then hit Neuhaus again for a 24-yard pass in the endzone.
“We came out firing on all cylinders,” Neuhaus said, “and they weren’t ready for that.”
On the Rams’ next drive, Long hit Elijah Hall with a 50-yard play action pass. Hall made an over-the-shoulder catch in tight coverage that put the Rams in great scoring position. A few plays later, Long completed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Lex Rosario.
Mental mistakes proved costly for West Chester’s defense throughout the game. West Chester committed three pre-snap penalties on New Haven’s second drive while defensive back Jaishan Thornton dropped a potential interception.
Ajee Patterson made West Chester pay for these miscues by capping off the drive with a play action pass to Jonatahn Badyna to tie the game 7-7. Patterson was only getting started as he led New Haven to the end zone two more times in the half, making big plays with his strong arm, including a 50-yard bomb in the second quarter.
“He’s got so much experience,” Zwaan said about Patterson. “He makes some really nice throws in some big situations.”
Down 21-14 at the start of the third quarter, the Golden Rams returned to what’s worked for them all year: Their dynamic running attack. Long rushed for 47 total yards, including a powerful 12-yard run up the middle on third and one to tie the game.
“We kind of went over things in halftime and said: Look, we should be able to run the ball,” Zwaan said. “And we did.”
Mike Class added to the Rams’ resurgent rushing game with a 27-yard run in the third quarter to put the Rams up 28-21. That touchdown, however, was the last time the Rams would score.
A few minutes later, Patterson would connect with Williams on the pivotal screen touchdown pass, and Long would get injured diving for a first down on third and seven. The crowd at Farrell stadium fell silent as Long laid on the ground for several moments before the trainers helped him off the field.
Patterson would score again on a one-yard rush to give New Haven a 35-28 lead. The Golden Rams’ offense without Long struggled to move the ball, as New Haven’s defense applied intense pressure to the inexperienced Piperno.
On fourth and six with less than a minute remaining, Piperno tried to connect with an open Lex Rosario, but the pass was underthrown, ending their hopes of a comeback.
The loss puts an end to what has been a great season for the Golden Rams. They dominated throughout the season with an undefeated record and were crowned the PSAC champions for the first time in 41 years.
“I think this just hurts because a lot of people on this team know [we] could have gone a lot further,” Neuhaus said. “It’s just terrible the way we went out.”