Football team feels the rush

For nearly four months, he planned, devised, created and re-created in preparation for his debut as Gannon University’s football coach.

But after all of first-year coach Brad Rzyczycki’s work leading up to Gannon’s 36-33 season-opening win over Lake Erie College Thursday night, another Knight shone brightest in his debut — all to the delight of Rzyczycki.

In passing for a school-record 420 yards and engineering a game-winning drive culminating with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Abraham Ocasio on fourth down, quarterback Liam Nadler demonstrated the ability that convinced his coaches to tab the 6-foot 7-inch redshirt freshman as the opening day starter.

Before a sellout crowd of 2,500 under the lights at Gannon University Field, Nadler commanded the offense, hit five different receivers and made a hit out of the new spread offense Gannon unveiled Thursday.

“The whole offense did well for the first game,” Nadler said. “The offense was different from what I ran before. It was more spread out, a lot of zone reads, bubble screens and jail breaks.”

Nadler ran the scout team while redshirting a season ago.  Thursday’s environment was noticibly different for Nadler, who took little time finding his rhythm, completing his first pass for an 89-yard touchdown to Ocasio.

A sophomore receiver, Ocasio accounted for 149 receiving yards and two touchdowns. His eight catches were one better than his total a year ago, but it wasn’t until the game-winning grab on fourth-and-2 – his only one of the second half— that Ocasio realized his success.

“I can’t really explain what I was thinking on that play,” he said, describing the fourth-down play — a play-action pass that resulted in Nadler finding him in the corner of the end zone after Ocasio had fallen down. “That was one of the greatest feelings of my life —  it still is.”

Rzyczycki gave his explanation for Gannon’s big plays.

“The reason we were able to make those plays was because we work on those situations,” he said. “We ran the scramble drill throughout camp so players would be able to keep the play alive when it breaks down.”

The touchdown capped off an 80-yard drive that started after Gannon stoned Lake Erie at the goal line and the Storm’s kicker Sam Marcotte missed a 22-yard field goal that would have given Lake Erie a seven-point advantage.

Lake Erie had taken the lead when running back Brandon Phenix broke a tackle and avoided the ground on a 54-yard dash to begin the fourth quarter. He finished with 137 rushing yards.

Phenix’s rise up the field followed a key interception by Gannon linebacker Will Giles that led to Jansen Jones’ 2-yard touchdown run.

After Gannon pinned the Storm at its own six, Giles jumped a pass in the flat to give the Knights their first lead of the second-half.

“My job was to hold the curl and I read the quarterback’s eyes,” Giles said. “When you feel you have to make a play, it almost never happens, so I didn’t force it.”

Gannon was forced to keep the ball in the air due to an ineffective run game that yielded negative-18 yards and contributed to eight sacks of Nadler.

But the Knights’ skill position players on the outside were more than able to pick up the slack, as sophomores Ocasio, Justin Caliste, Joe Sobucki and freshman Quad Law— dubbed the “fearsome four” – combined to account for all but two of Nadler’s 420 yards.

Ocasio, Sobucki and Law all found the end zone, while Caliste pulled off what may have been the game’s most impressive play when he plucked a deflected pass out of the air and raced 60 yards in the decisive drive.

“We have the talent,” said Rzyczycki, who became just Gannon’s second head coach since former-mayor Lou Tullio to win in his debut. “The kids are young, but you know I’d rather have kids with a lot of talent than just experience.”

JOE CUNEO

[email protected]knights.gannon.edu