SELINSGROVE — For the first 10 minutes of its Centennial Conference game Saturday afternoon, the Susquehanna University team resembled the Titanic. It didn’t seem like there would be enough lifeboats to save the Crusaders.
Juniata College senior quarterback Ward Udinski, known for his running ability, came out firing passes all over Nicholas Lopardo Stadium. The Eagles scored easily on their first two possessions, while their defense shut down the Crusaders.
Juniata went up by 13 with 4:52 to go in the first quarter and it looked like it would be a long afternoon for the home team on its Senior Day, Hall of Fame Day and Homecoming, not to mention the biggest rivalry game for both teams.
What could not have been predicted was one of the wildest second halves of football that you will see, as Juniata held on for a 44-35 victory in the season finale for both squads. With university officials watching the clock (the homecoming parade was set for 4:15), this was a game that didn’t want to end.
Susquehanna (2-8 overall, 2-7 CC) settled down and pulled to within 16-14 late in the second quarter before Udinski — who finished with 390 passing yards — and Co. put on a 70-yard scoring drive in just 42 seconds to go up 23-14 at the break.
Udinski said, “We knew we were rolling early, but with this type of rivalry, it’s always going to be close. This has been probably the best rivalry I’ve ever been a part of and no matter how good either of us is, it’s always close.”
The Eagles missed a field goal that would have made it an 11-point margin. Udinski said, “The nine points was great because it was two possessions, and that was huge.”
Juniata coach Tim Launtz said, “People don’t realize when you look at a scoreboard like this, the offense did a great job, but defense won the football game. Defense made the stops when they had to make the stops and the offense kept us in the game.”
Launtz added, “Susquehanna is a good football team. They’ve been snake-bitten all year and we were hoping they didn’t find the stuff to take care of that this weekend,” he said.
The nine-point margin haunted the Crusaders the rest of the game as they got to within two points on three more occasions, at 23-21, 30-28 and 37-35, but never got over the hump.
Juniata (5-5, 4-5) always answered to push the margin back to nine. When the SU defense finally seemed to have made the stop to give the offense a shot to take the lead for the first time, it seemed too good to be true.
SU forced a punt that Will Howell fair caught at his 15. Instead, SU was flagged for encroachment before the snap and Juniata kept the ball with a first down at its own 48.
Juniata scored four plays and an SU facemask penalty later to make it 44-35 with 11:01 left in the game.
Although that was the final margin, the game was far from over. The two teams took the large crowd on a wild ride that might have felt like they were aboard the Titanic.
The teams combined for six turnovers in the final 9:40 and it seemed like, despite throwing two interceptions and coughing up two fumbles in that span, the Crusaders were never without hope of a comeback.
That’s because every time the Eagles had a chance to put it away, they also turned it over.
Junior wide receiver Kwane Hale kept the Crusaders in the game, scoring three touchdowns, two on passes from freshman Nick Crusco (from 53 and 36 yards) and an 83-yard kickoff return, the first of the season for SU.
The Crusaders’ first score of the second half came on a trick play in which running back Ian Richardson took a direct snap and pitched it to quarterback-turned-receiver Taylor Kolmer, who hit Crusco for a 7-yard TD.
Susquehanna coach Steve Briggs said, “Kwane Hale has shown what the whole league is going to see next year. This kid’s phenomenal. Nobody can touch him. We just have to build on the positives.”
Briggs added, “We made more mistakes in this game than we have all year, but (the Eagles) are good. We never quit in any phase.”
Selinsgrove grad Kyle Schuck, a senior tight end, had a key 27-yard reception to set up a Juniata score.