NEW BRITAIN - For the second time in as many weeks, the Central Connecticut State football team let a fourth-quarter lead slip away and for the second time in as many weeks, Francis Cole bailed out the Blue Devils.
After hitting the game-winning field goal at Fordham in the season opener, Cole connected on a 44-yarder with eight seconds left on the clock to help give CCSU a 40-37 win over Merrimack (1-1), a team transitioning from Division II to the NEC, on Saturday night.
“Franny, ooh, I’m going to have to buy him a pizza after this man,” said senior linebacker Tre Jones, who finished with 1.5 sacks.
It was a strong way to cap off what had been a shaky game for the senior kicker.
After making a 42-yard field goal in the first quarter, Cole missed his next two - a 47-yard attempt in the first and a 43-yard attempt in the third - both wide left. He also had one his five extra point attempts blocked.
“I just trusted my mechanics and I forgot about the other kicks and I just followed through,” Cole said. “Once I saw it off my foot, I knew it was good. It was a great feeling. It’s definitely a confidence booster.”
CCSU (2-0) held a 37-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter thanks to a number of big plays, especially from junior wide receiver Tyshaun James, who finished with three touchdowns.
The Middletown product did a little bit of everything, except throw the ball - although he did take snaps out of shotgun - for the Blue Devils. James ended his night with a team-high 110 total yards of offense, which included 95 yards and touchdown through the air and 15 yards and two more scores on the ground.
James’s first touchdown was a 7-yard reverse with 12:02 left in the second quarter to pull CCSU within a score of the Warriors at 14-10. His second was an 8-yard end around a little less than nine minutes later to put the Blue Devils in front 17-14. James also caught one of quarterback Aaron Winchester’s two touchdown passes with a 22-yard reception in the third quarter.
Sandwiched in between James’ second and third touchdowns was a 60-yard catch and run from Winchester to Kenyata Huston.
“It was the coaches’ game plan for me,” James said of his big night. “They said they wanted to get the ball in their best athletes’ hands. I felt like that’s what we were trying to do today. We have athletes all around. Got to give credit to the O-line, receivers, quarterback to help me do what I was able to do.”
Winchester finished 14-of-25 for 199 yards and two interceptions. He also rushed 10 times for 75 yards.
But after CCSU safety DJ Exilhomme converted a Merrimack fumble into a 3-yard touchdown midway through the third, the Warriors responded with 23 unanswered points, which included two 2-point conversions. The outscored the Blue Devils 16-3 in the fourth quarter.
Merrimack quarterback Christian Carter threw three touchdown passes over the final 19 minutes of the game. The sophomore connected with Malachi McFadden for a 20-yard score with 4:29 left in the third quarter and then found Marquis Spence for the other two touchdowns with 1:58 left and 54 seconds left respectively. The second score to Spence game after Merrimack recovered an onside kick.
Carter was 23-of-43 for 273 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. Spence, meanwhile, caught eight of those throws for 83 yards and three scores.
“I give Merrimack a lot of credit,” CCSU head coach Ryan McCarthy said. “They played hard. They never quit. They have good skill position players and their quarterback is dangerous. They’re going to be a good addition to this conference. I don’t know if our kids were looking past them, maybe the hangover from last week, but we were up 17 points in that fourth quarter… They were a lot more physical on defense than I thought they were going to be.”
But that only set the stage for another dramatic win for the Blue Devils.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” Winchester said. “We did what we had to do at the end of the day, but as a team, we can’t allow a team to come back and have life. But you can never complain about a win.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org