By Danny Lopriore – Special teams, special day, special win.
The Pace University defense and special teams units made several dynamic game-changing plays to propel the Setters to a thrilling 20-17 victory on Saturday afternoon over favored visiting Bentley.
The Setters upped their overall record to 3-2, remained perfect at home (3-0) and won their second
Northeast-10 Conference game featuring a fake punt that led to a score and a fake field goal try that produced a touchdown on a chilly, windy day at Pace Stadium.
“I think it’s cultural, “Setters head coach Andrew Rondeau said. “I don’t know, you’d have to ask other people, but we’ve been working hard and saying we would win games on special teams for a long time. Our punt team meetings are more like calculus class than basic football. It may sound arrogant, but we work very hard on that aspect. We weren’t surprised at the results.”
And the hits and fakes came from every angle. The biggest and most telling led to the game-winning score in the third quarter.
Reserve quarterback Brandon Simmons took a snap meant to be set down for placekicker Pat Davis, rolled left and lofted a 19-yard touchdown pass to receiver Prince Unaegbu to give the Setters a 17-7 lead with 3:27 remaining in the third quarter.
The freshman left-hander revealed that the special-team unit has practiced the play often and that he felt comfortable making the throw in what could have been a game changer if it had not worked. Simmons said the team has been waiting for the right moment to use the punt fake.
“We practice this like a game situation, same tempo, so it was no surprise,” Simmons said. “We dedicate ourselves as special-teams players for when we get an opportunity. It worked out just the way we expected.”
Earlier, punter and backup quarterback Nick Fountis handled a fake punt to perfection in the first half, turning a stalled drive into a scoring drive. Fountis took a deep snap at the Falcons’ 33-yard line, but instead of kicking to Bentley deep, tossed a 15-yard pass to David Grant. Running back Jhalen Bien-Aime finished the drive five plays later with a one-yard score.
“I didn’t feel any nerves at all,” said Fountis, who also blasted a 70-yard punt to bury Bentley deep in its own end later in the game. “It worked just the way we practice. I think those plays on specials changed the momentum a couple of times.”
Despite yielding 467 yards of offense to the Falcons, whose three-game winning streak came to an end, the Setters’ defense made big plays at the right time and in the right place.
Defensive back B’Jon Couther had nine tackles, forced two fumbles and made an acrobatic interception in the end zone to kill a Bentley drive. Chukwuemeka Njoku-Obi blocked a Bentley punt that set up the Setters’ first score.
Bien-Aime, who rushed for 139 yards on 32 carries, including the first score of the game, has fought through injuries to prepare for this season. He tugged and battled to keep Pace drives going.
“There was a big emphasis on controlling the game with the run,” Bien-Aime said. “The offensive line was firing off, making lanes and holding blocks. I don’t like to give up on a run. I am glad to be out there contributing.”
Bentley closed the gap to 17-10 with a field goal near the end of the third quarter, but Pace responded with an 11-play drive that ended with a game-deciding 23-yard field goal by Pat Davis with 12:22 remaining in the fourth. Davis hit both of his tries, the other a 43-yarder.
Bentley scored on a touchdown pass with 1:17 left in the game and Pace was soon forced to punt. With 55 seconds remaining, Bentley moved the ball to the 32-yard line. But with just five seconds left, Grant Buchanan missed a 49-yard field goal attempt wide left to give the Setters the win.
Rondeau said his team would use the win, get a break to heal during this week’s bye and prepare for further success.
“We don’t like to use the term ‘bend but don’t break’ for the defense, but the defense bled ’em out,” Rondeau said. “Our defensive coordinator (Damian Mincey) had a plan to contain. We were going to keep them in front and inside and not worry about rushing the passer, but cover and tackle. The plan worked well.”
The Setters will get some rest with a bye this week before traveling to play Merrimack on October 14.