Kings Point, NY --- WPI was stopped at 4th and goal from the one yard line with just over a minute left to play, as undefeated Merchant Marine held on for a 31-28 victory at home on Saturday afternoon in the NEWMAC opener for both teams.
The Mariners improve to 4-0 (1-0 NEWMAC) on the season for the first time since 1997. WPI drops its fourth-straight, going to 1-4, 0-1.
A back-and-forth game came down to the final possession, as a fourth quarter touchdown from the Mariners provided the margin needed. Trailing 31-28 with 8:54 remaining, WPI engineered a 16-play, 74-yard drive in its final offensive possession, including converting on four third downs. However, the visitors were stopped on three consecutive rush attempts inside the three yard line to thwart any hopes of an upset.
WPI struck early in the first quarter, as a two-yard Hunter Carey (South Hadley, MA) rush put the Crimson and Gray up 7-0. USMMA answered with a rushing touchdown of its own, tying the game at 7-7 after one. The second quarter followed the same script, as WPI went up 14-7 on a 12-yard touchdown from Brendan Olexa (Hatboro, PA) to Ethan Farrah (Grafton, MA), but the Mariners sent the game into the break tied at 14-14 with an Ian Blankenship (McRae, GA) rushing touchdown.
A 27-yard Merchant Marine field goal opened up the scoring in the third quarter, as the Mariners took their first lead of the game at 17-14. WPI responded with an Olexa to Joe Coutcher (West Greenwich, RI) 56-yard score, the longest career completion for Olexa, which put the Engineers up 21-17. The teams traded touchdowns to close out the high-scoring third quarter, as USMMA broke for an 80-yard score to go up 24-28, while WPI countered with a Brandon Winn (Tewksbury, MA) rushing touchdown making it 28-24 WPI after three.
Merchant Marine opened the fourth quarter scoring with a four-yard rushing TD from Alec Kiernan, which proved to be the game-winner. WPI's final drive took up 7:52, but stalled at the one, as the hosts took over on downs and ran out the clock to preserve the win.
Olexa had a career game, going 16-for-22, tossing a collegiate-best 345 yards, including a 56-yard completion, with two touchdowns. Isaac Frederique (Methuen, MA) had seven receptions for a career-high 176 yards, while Coutcher caught three passes for 99 yards and a score. Farrah had three receptions, including his 12-yard TD.
On the ground, Carey and Winn each had rushing touchdowns, as Carey gained 34 yards on 10 attempts and Winn, 17 yards, also on 10 attempts. Zachary Levy (Bellingham, MA) led WPI with 54 yards rushing on a team-best 12 attempts.
Defensively, Ethan Catania (Amesbury, MA) led the WPI effort notching a career-high 15 tackles, including 13 solo stops. Zachary Carney (North Easton, MA) had nine tackles, eight solo, while Nica Hesel (Downingtown, PA) recorded a sack among his four solo tackles.
For Merchant Marine, Matt Strong (Pacific, MO) rushed for 143 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Blankenship had 198 yards on 21 carries with one touchdown, while Alec Kiernan (Milton, FL) added a touchdown on three carries for 11 yards.
WPI hosts Catholic in its NEWMAC home opener on Saturday with kickoff set for noon. Merchant Marine goes on the road at Norwich on Saturday, beginning at 1pm.