Good football is often entertaining. Entertaining football, however, does not as often equal what coaches would call “good football.”
After the University of Charleston and No. 5 Notre Dame College exchanged touchdowns on each of the first four possessions of the game Saturday, Golden Eagles coach Pat Kirkland knew that while the fireworks show was good for fan participation, it wasn’t indicative of the kind of game he thought his team needed to play to get a win.
He wasn’t wrong. Even though UC took a fourth-quarter lead, NDC scored the final 14 points of the game to escape University of Charleston Stadium with a 63-53 win, improving to 6-0 on the season.
“Our offense is playing really well, and I felt like we could put some points on the board,” Kirkland said. “I was a little disappointed. I thought we’d play better defensively. We just didn’t execute, and that starts with me. We’ve got to do a better job.”
UC slipped to 4-2 on the season and 3-2 in Mountain East Conference play. NDC is also 6-0 within the conference.
Falcons sophomore running back Jaleel McLaughlin, the 2018 MEC Offensive Player of the Year, carried 29 times for 206 yards and four touchdowns, pushing his season rushing total to 1,127 yards and 16 rushing scores. His 18-yard run with 14:21 left in the first half put the Falcons up 21-17 after the NDC defense was able to keep UC out of the end zone for the first time in the game on the Golden Eagles’ previous drive.
From that point until the 5:40 mark of the third quarter, the Falcons offense had complete control of the game. A 21-yard pass from NDC quarterback Chris Brimm to Tre’von Slater opened scoring in the second half to put NDC ahead 41-24, and Brimm’s 25-yard catch-and-run hookup with McLaughlin gave the Falcons a 24-point lead at 48-24 before UC began to pull itself off the mat.
Although Kirkland’s concern with his team’s defense was reflected in the game’s statistics — NDC ran the ball 40 times for 311 yards and threw for 251 more — it was big-play defense that helped jump-start UC’s second-half comeback.
Brant Grisel connected with Mike Stachan for a 16-yard touchdown pass that cut the lead to 49-31 with 3:40 left in the third quarter. On the Falcons’ next possession, McLaughlin took a first-down handoff at his own 40 and was stripped behind the line of scrimmage by UC junior safety D’Vaughn Whitt. Whitt returned the ball 37 yards for a UC touchdown to make it 49-38.
After forcing a punt of NDC’s next drive — the Falcons punted just twice — Grisel found Tyreik McAllister for a 56-yard score, and a successful 2-point conversion cut NDC’s lead to just three at 49-46.
Grisel, who entered the game with the third-most passing yards in the nation, completed 25 of 42 passes for 475 yards and four touchdowns without throwing an interception. Strachan caught 12 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns, while Tremaine Ross had six catches for 161 yards and a score.
UC took the a 53-49 lead with 9:40 left in regulation when Grisel hooked up with Ross for an 88-yard score, and for a moment and with all momentum, it seemed like the Golden Eagles might complete an epic comeback.
“I’m proud of our guys and the way they battled,” Kirkland said. “To come back in the fourth quarter and take the lead like that … we’re a young group and it’s a little disappointing that we didn’t play a little bit better in the kicking game and on the defensive side.”
That moment lasted all of 10 seconds. On the Falcons’ first play of their ensuing drive, McLaughlin took a handoff and dashed 70 yards to the end zone for what proved to be the game-winner.
“I don’t believe in moral victories. You put that much effort into something as a team and as a coaching staff, and it should bother you and it does,” Kirkland said. “We had plenty of opportunities to win the football game … but we are young, and sometimes they have to remember that their heart and their head have to meet halfway.
“It can’t just be all passion. We were too much up and down today, on a roller coaster,” he said.
Kirkland noted that he and his young team must guard against a letdown after Saturday’s emotional loss. UC travels to Frostburg State (5-1, 5-1 MEC) for a Thursday night game next week.
“We can’t let this one loss turn into two,” Kirkland said. “Frostburg’s got an excellent football team and that’s going to be a tough trip.”
Notre Dame College returns home next Saturday to host Wheeling (0-6, 0-5).