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Utica University football team’s run continues

Ben Birnell
Sports writer
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Posted 11/21/22

The Utica University football team has its first NCAA Division III playoff win in its first appearance.

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Utica University football team’s run continues

Posted

The Utica University football team has its first NCAA Division III playoff win in its first appearance.

Now, coach Blaise Faggiano has told his team there is an another opportunity during the impressive season that includes a 17-10 win over previously undefeated Susquehanna University last weekend in the first round of the Division III tournament.

“I told them all, ‘you’ve all now earned an opportunity to have a ring. Now, what are you going to put on it? Is it Sweet 16? Is it Elite 8? Is it Final Four? Is it National championship?” Faggiano said Monday.

Utica has 10 wins in a season for the first time in the program’s history, which dates back to the early 2000s. The program earned the first ring with a bowl game win in 2018.

Next up is a trip to Ohio and Mount Union (10-0), which has been a perennial power in Division III. The teams are set to play at noon Saturday in Alliance, Ohio, to be among eight teams remaining.

Utica’s win over Susquehanna was one of a few victories viewed as an upset over the weekend by some in the Division III college football world in part because of the Pioneers’ at-large bid following a 9-1 regular-season.

Susquehanna had been ranked No. 11 in the last d3football.com poll, which isn’t followed by the Division III selection committee for the 32-team tournament field. Utica had recently been part of the receiving votes category and Faggiano said despite being a one-loss team, Utica isn’t “well known” to some. There was some belief the game would end in a lopsided manner in Susquehanna’s favor. It has added to an “Us against the world” mentality for Utica, Faggiano said. 

“I’m just so proud of our staff and our players,” said Faggiano, who is in his 15th season leading Utica. “At the end of the day, people wanted to say this and that … we showed our guys could play. The Empire 8 Conference prepared us to play. The physicality (Utica had) was a surprise. I really think they thought they were going to have their way with us. Our guys showed up. It was an incredible game.” 

With help from impressive defensive and special teams efforts, Utica is among the 16 teams advancing to the second round. Utica had five interceptions, including three from senior Jamel Smith with one with under a minute remaining to help seal Utica’s win.

A defining blocked punt by freshman Eli Douglas helped provide momentum in the third quarter. The return by Douglas (who also had an interception) helped set up good field position and led to Utica’s go-ahead touchdown. Warren McDonald (sack, forced fumble) and Anthony Novell each had a team-best nine combined tackles.

“For us to win the game with defense and special teams is huge for our team,” Faggiano said. “For us in the postseason, getting special teams going and getting good strong defense is helpful.” 

Utica grabbed a 10-3 lead on a touchdown connection between Braeden Zenelovic and Empire 8 Offensive Player of the Year and Vernon-Verona-Sherrill’s Nate Palmer for the 18th time this season. Zenelovic threw another touchdown to Izzy Maldonado early in the fourth quarter for a cushion.

VVS grad Travis Decker led all Utica receivers with six catches for 97 yards.

Zenelovic, the transfer from Albany who finished 26-for-47 on pass attempts for 263 yards, was hard on himself after the game. Faggiano said he no reason to be and praised his leadership. 

“This team is committed to playing for each other,” Faggiano said. “It is 32 seniors. … There’s a true love for each other with these guys. You see it with how they play.”

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