Tartan football defeats Bears to win conference championship

The Tartans left Francis Field in St. Louis Saturday afternoon with more than just a conference title in hand. By surviving a 10–7 overtime war of attrition against Washington University (Mo.), the newly crowned University Athletic Association (UAA) victors revealed the type of resolve and grit that defines championship teams.

Carnegie Mellon — who a week ago defeated last year’s UAA title holders, the University of Chicago, 27–0 — had cruised to a 7–0 mark, averaging a 22-point average margin of victory. With this season’s conference supremacy at stake for both schools, however, Wash. U. tested the Tartans unlike any other opponent all season.

“I think it says a lot about our character,” head coach Rich Lackner said. “What I always say and what a lot of coaches say — it’s kind of a cliche, but — good teams find a way to win.”

As would be the theme all day, both defenses took center stage from the game’s outset. The Tartans (8–0, 3–0) and Bears (5–4, 2–1) each forced punts on their opponents’ opening possession. Carnegie Mellon drew first blood early in the second quarter when quarterback Doug Facemyer capped a 10-play, 44-yard drive with his first touchdown run of the season. The sophomore, starting his second straight game for an injured Kevin Mulkern, found the end zone by sprinting right and diving for the near pylon. Senior kicker Nat Greenstein booted the extra point and Carnegie Mellon owned a 7–0 lead.

Wash. U., also undefeated in conference play and in line for the UAA title with a victory Saturday, answered the score two drives later off the arm of their senior quarterback. Pat McCarthy, who completed all three of his passes during a four-play, 40-yard march, found senior wide receiver Nick Lizanich on a play-action pass that covered 27 yards for the Bears’ first points.

Although Carnegie Mellon and Wash. U. combined for two touchdowns in the first six minutes of the second quarter, defense dominated the remainder of the contest. On the next possession, the Tartans forced their third three-and-out of the half to return the ball to the offense.

The defense excelled all day, but, late in the first half, it was Lackner’s special teams unit that proved instrumental in safeguarding the 7–7 tie.

When Facemyer misfired on a third-and-nine from his own 16 with less than two minutes on the clock, the punt team took the field. Senior Matthew Adams tried to pin Wash. U. deep enough to prevent any chance of a late second-quarter score. A five-yard running-into-the-kicker penalty, however, allowed the Tartans to replay the down. Lackner gambled and rather than re-kick, the Tartans snapped the ball directly to the up-back, linebacker James Rogers, and the senior charged 18 yards through the Bear defense. The first down allowed the offense to run out the clock and escape the first half tied at seven.

Offensive woes continued into the second half for both teams as the Tartans only earned one first down on their first three possessions against a tough Wash. U. defense. The Bears also struggled to move the chains against an equally stout unit. Their first three drives of the second half followed a familiar recipe: three plays, then punt.

“It was a defensive struggle on both sides,” Lackner said about a unit that allowed just 136 total yards. “We had a tough time moving the ball against a great group and our kids played their tail end off too, so it was very much so a defensive struggle.”

Carnegie Mellon’s most promising scoring opportunity of the second half came after a short punt provided great field position at the Wash. U. 31. The offense could not take advantage, however, and the Bears blocked Greenstein’s 44-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the third quarter.

The offenses again traded punts during the opening 10 minutes of the fourth quarter until Wash. U. managed one last scoring threat. On second down, with barely a minute left in regulation, McCarthy dropped back to pass but Rogers tipped the ball at the line of scrimmage and senior linebacker Jamie Ploetzner hauled it in at the Bear 39.

“That was all Rogers. He came on the blitz and ended up getting a hand on the ball. I give him all the credit for that,” Ploetzner said. “I was just concentrating on getting the turnover and letting our offense have another shot to put it in the end zone.”

Despite the great field position supplied by Ploetzner’s pick, Carnegie Mellon could not move into field goal range and overtime was needed to determine the 2006 UAA champion.

The Tartans, who won the ensuing coin toss, elected to pit their defense against the anemic Bears offense at the start of overtime. An early first down did not rattle the defense and two offensive penalties, as well as a six-yard loss, kept Wash. U.’s offense out of the end zone. On fourth-and-12 from the 15, junior Mike Elliot lined up for a 32-yard field goal but it sailed wide right.

Needing only a field goal to clinch the title, the Tartans turned to a phase of their game plan that had been at the foundation of their 7–0 start: the sixth ranked running game in Division III.

Saturday’s 126 rushing yards fell far short of their gaudy 282 yards per game average, yet when the offense needed to shorten the field for Greenstein’s leg, Sivek and the offensive line produced, covering 19 yards on six consecutive carries.

“I think that’s a testament to the character of the guys I play with on offense,” senior right guard J.P. White said. “In that huddle there was definitely a sense of urgency in everybody’s eyes. There wasn’t anyone in that huddle that was going to step down and settle for anything less than three points.”

Sivek’s hard running brought the Tartans closer and closer to both the Bears’ end zone and the program’s seventh UAA title. Finally, on fourth-and-one from the three, Greenstein was called on to bring home the Tartan victory. The senior’s 22-yard field goal cleared the uprights and closed out another chapter in the team’s storied 2006 season.
“It has been our goal every year to win the UAA,” said Greenstein, who also nailed the game-winner in last season’s victory over Case Western Reserve University. “When you think about it coming down to a field goal and being able to kick it, it’s a special feeling.”