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Neuhaus scores TD, helps lead WCU to opening game squeaker

WEST GOSHEN – Coming off an undefeated regular season, West Chester was very fortunate to avoid a loss in the 2019 football opener on Saturday at Farrell Stadium.

The Golden Rams scored the go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds remaining in regulation to escape with a 14-7 triumph over a Bentley (Mass.) squad WCU trounced by 38 points a year ago. It was 22nd ranked West Chester’s only lead, but good enough to avoid the upset.

“We just kind of did just enough on offense and the defense picked things up as the game wore on,” said head coach Bill Zwaan. “We survived, and that’s the word for it. But if you want to win championships, you have to survive bad games, and we did that.”

Deadlocked at 7-7 and facing overtime, redshirt freshman running back Ja’Den McKenzie scored on a 30-yard run to cap a 60-yard game-winning drive. It was a big play, but it probably wouldn’t have happened without a clutch scramble and first down run by senior quarterback Paul Dooley to convert a third-and-12.

“We need to clean a lot of things up, but we are going to get better on offense,” Zwaan promised. “Dooley had a bad day and he’s not going to do that on a regular basis.

“(The scramble) was unbelievable. We don’t win the game without that. He did some good things, so he is going to have to build off those.”

The Golden Rams were outgained 334-306, lost the turnover battle 5-0 and did not score a point from inside the red zone. But the defense surrendered just one touchdown and McKenzie sure looked like an effective runner, amassing 112 rushing yards on just 10 carries.

“You can’t win many (at minus-five on turnover),” Zwaan said. “It was a really bad performance by us, mainly on offense, but we overcame it. It’s such a positive that we found a way to win a game we really shouldn’t have won.”

As expected, WCU exhibited loads of first game issues, like missed tackles on defense, as well as costly penalties and turnovers on offense. But it’s important to understand that the Rams were breaking in a dozen first-time starters, including McKenzie and three other freshmen.

“If we would have hit on all cylinders today, I would have been completely shocked,” Zwaan acknowledged. “This might be a blessing in disguise because this will certainly prevent our team from thinking they are too good.”

Trailing most of the way, West Chester tied it at 7-7 on a 25-yard scoring toss from Dooley to tight end Dan Neuhaus (Bishop Shanahan) late in the third quarter. McKenzie set up the TD with a key 27-yard run.

“Dan catches touchdowns because he is a tight end that is hard to cover,” Zwaan said.

Midway through the fourth, the Rams dodged a bullet when Nyeem Jones blocked a Bentley field goal moments after freshman wideout Seth Degree had fumbled deep in WCU territory. It was West Chester’s second of two go-ahead field goal blocks on the day.

First-year punter George Lambritsios then uncorked a 73-yarder that was downed inside the Falcons’ one. That eventually set up the game-winning drive, which began with 1:59 on the clock.

“That was crazy momentum-wise. George came up with a monster punt,” Dooley said.

“We just had to persevere. We knew it was going to come down to who scored last, and it was us.”

A false-start penalty near midfield brought up a third-and-long with 1:15 on the clock, and Dooley appeared to be in trouble as he dropped back to pass. But he managed to find a tiny crease up the middle, slipped into daylight and then dove for the first down marker.

“I was getting pressured, I wiggled my way through it and once I got to the second level I just had to reach out and hopefully get to the line,” Dooley explained.

He made it by inches. Two plays later, McKenzie wrapped up the win.

“He broke his thumb in our scrimmage last week, so we really we’re sure how much we were going to be able to use him,” Zwaan said of the 6-foot-1, 205 pound McKenzie. “But once he got going, we just let him go.”

It was an uplifting finish to a contest that was troubling early. Just in the opening half alone, Bentley had a touchdown called back due to a penalty, had another sure TD erased by a dropped pass, and ended the half with a blocked field goal, this time by WCU sophomore Sterlen Barr. But the Falcons still led 7-0 at the break.

It was the first time the Rams were shutout in a half since the 2017 NCAA Playoffs against Indiana (Pa.).

“At halftime I prayed,” said senior defensive tackle Tyrone Barge. “There was a whole lot of yelling. We all knew we were better than we played in the first half.”

A first quarter running into the punter penalty on Bentley coaxed WCU to go for it on 4th and one near midfield and it backfired. A botched snap gave the Falcons good field position, and five plays later runner Andrew Brazicki went 20-yards to open the scoring.

The Rams moved inside the Falcons’ 30 twice in the first half and came away empty handed. The first was halted by a one of two Dooley interceptions and the second was thwarted by three penalties.

“I felt like some of our guys thought we would just roll over (Bentley), but you can’t think like that,” said Barge who finished with a game-high 10 tackles.

“It didn’t surprise me,” Zwaan countered. “I knew this was going to be a touchdown game, but I thought it would be higher scoring. It may have surprised our kids a little bit.”

Bentley outgained WCU 203-173 on the ground, and West Chester did not record a single sack or force a turnover. But the Rams did manage to turn the Falcons over on downs twice in the second half to keep it close.

“We just wanted to find out who we are today. And we can be much better,” Barge said.

“A couple of the guys playing in their first game struggled a bit,” Zwaan added. “But we did a good job not letting (Bentley) get into the end zone.”

NOTES: Starting defensive end Fulani Freeman suffered what appeared to be a left leg injury early in the second half. The 6-foot-5 junior had to be helped off the field, was on crutches and did not return. “I thought he hurt his hip, but I don’t know the for sure,” Zwaan said … Lambritsios had a big day in his debut, booting four punts for an average of 51.2 per punt. “What a day he had, and it’s the first time he’s punted in a game,” Zwaan said. “He didn’t even punt in high school.”

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