Sweat drips from his face, his eyes focus in on his receiver and HUT — the center snaps the ball.
Looking left to right, quickly evading the pressure and throwing the ball on a thin line in between a defensive lineman’s outstretched hands, redshirt junior quarterback Zach Phillips completes the ball to Nico Law for an early 7-0 lead.
The Gannon men’s football team carried the momentum Phillips created in the first possession throughout Saturday’s game against Millersville in honor of the team’s seniors, to send them off on a high note with a 31-14 victory in the season finale at McConnell Family Stadium.
“Everyone was really happy for the seniors on Saturday,” Gannon coach Brad Rzyczycki said afterward. “You always want your seniors to leave with a victory.
“Players always remember the last game they play in.”
Millersville quickly tried to respond after the first of Phillips’ two touchdown passes, but the Knights’ defense stalled the Marauders’ offense completely.
Redshirt senior Tyler Johnson blasted through Millersville’s line on a punt to block it and give the Knights the ball at the 2-yard line.
Phillips punched the rock in from there, putting Gannon up a quick two touchdowns at 14-0 in the first quarter.
Phillips attributed his improvement as a player to those around him, both on the field and on the sidelines.
“What contributed most to my success this year was my teammates pushing me to be better,” he said. “And the coaches, too, always coaching me hard every day to make me better.
“Having teammates and coaches that push and challenge you will make a player really good in the long run.”
Seniors continued to carry this performance for the Knights. Matthew Gawlik blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt to hold Millersville.
Phillips then led the Knights on their longest drive of the afternoon, a 76-yard, eight-play march.
Johnson scored another touchdown on the first play of the second quarter to help Gannon extend its lead to 21-0.
Phillips saluted the play of Johnson and his fellow offensive captain, Quad Law.
“My success was also helped by the great talent around me, especially from our two offensive captains Quad [Law] and Tyler Johnson,” he said. “They made a lot of plays this year and played hard every game.”
Millersville responded with two touchdowns — one in each of the second and third quarters — but that wasn’t enough to mount a comeback on the determined Knights.
In the final quarter, the score was 24-14 in favor of Gannon, as the Knights added a 26-yard field goal from Karch Holland late in the third quarter.
Quickly, Phillips ripped off a 35-yard run, and Law followed with a 19-yarder. Then, the duo connected on a 5-yard touchdown pass to seal the win.
Rzyczycki credited the success to the team’s seniors.
“The leadership [came] from the seniors — they did a great job controlling the locker room and handling the highs and lows of the season,” he said.
“This was very important because we are such a young team.”
The Knights sent their seniors off with a nice crowd, a win and the right note, according to Phillips. They finished the season strong after losing two close games to Mercyhurst and Clarion.
After the 5-6 season, the team moves toward next year hoping to improve with its young core. “Knowing we had a lot of inexperience returning for the 2016 season we were focusing on the process of getting better week-to-week and not the outcomes,” Rzyczycki said.
“I thought we had a lot of growth throughout the season and it should help us moving forward into the 2017 season.”
With the young core, the team is expecting to improve and grow together through offseason workouts.
“It’s always nice to end the season on a positive note,” Rzyczycki said. “We talked early in the week about starting a win streak that could carry over to next year.
“We plan on using this as a springboard into our offseason workouts.”
Eight seniors were honored during pre-game festivities, including Christian Carpenter, who had eight tackles and an interception.
Underclassmen also made their presence known during the contest. Phillips rolled up 307 of Gannon’s 384 yards of offense, rushing for 139 yards and throwing for 168 yards on 14-of-21 completions.
On defense, redshirt sophomore Geremy Paige finished with 11 tackles, three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.