DURHAM, N.H. - The Central Connecticut State and New Hampshire football teams met at midfield to shake hands. The Blue Devils, though, had expected it to be under different circumstances.
In 60 minutes of game time, CCSU’s season had come to a less than ideal ending. The Wildcats made sure of that Saturday in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
The 14-0 loss was the Blue Devils’ first since Week 3 against Youngstown State.
There was disappointment along with some frustration afterward. It was understandable. CCSU had the chances to possibly come out with the win instead and continue its season.
There were just too many mistakes, with four turnovers on offense and not being able to get off the field on third down on defense - New Hampshire was 9-of-18 - chief among them.
Both of the Wildcats’ scores came off turnovers.
“We did some things that were a little uncharacteristic of everything we did all year,” Blue Devils head coach Pete Rossomando said.
But as CCSU looks back, 2017 could end up being the start of a foundation for what the program hopes is a bright future.
The Blue Devils’ 8-4 record gave them just their fourth winning season in the last 10 years and was the third time during that stretch they had won eight games or more.
They went undefeated in the Northeast Conference for the first time in the program’s history to win their first conference title since 2010.
It had been a tough run for CCSU, which had gone just 9-25 in its first three seasons under Rossomando, never finishing higher than a tie for third place in the NEC.
That all changed after an 0-3 start to the season, when the Blue Devils went on an eight-game winning streak and, most importantly, reached the FCS playoffs - again, both firsts for the program.
“I think we grew a lot over the course of the season,” CCSU senior linebacker Randall Laguerre said. “The first couple games were shaky, but I feel as though we were competitive in every game we played. No matter who we went up against, we showed we were a competitive team.
“I think we grew a lot as a team. We got better defensively at communication, we got faster. [On] offense, the offensive line took us a long way. Our running backs got involved. I think we did a good job on the season overall.”
But there was the question of how much different the game would have gone had the regular starting quarterback, Jacob Dolegala, played.
The defense, which played great at times and at other times struggled, especially on third down, did plenty to keep the Blue Devils in the game.
CCSU was down just 7-0 thanks in part to three missed field goals by the Wildcats entering the final minute of the game, before Evan Gray’s 1-yard touchdown run sealed New Hampshire’s win.
There just wasn’t enough continuity on offense to support it.
Dolegala had started all 22 regular season games over the past two years. This season, the junior, the program’s all-time leader in passing yards, completed 52.9 percent of his passes for 1,953 yards, with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also ran for 212 yards and four touchdowns on 52 carries.
A one-game suspension resulting from an off-campus house party the week before, however, put sophomore Tanner Kingsley into the starting lineup for his first ever collegiate start.
Kingsley played as well as expected for a quarterback that had attempted just 13 passes coming into the game. He completed 11 of his 18 passes for 118 yards and two interceptions, both of which were on tipped throws.
But the offense managed just one official trip into the red zone - which ended on Kingsley’s interception on its first drive of the game.
Another play in the third quarter, which would have given the Blue Devils a first-and-goal from the New Hampshire 2-yard line, was called back after a 26-yard pass on a double-reverse flea flicker was deemed to have been one too many forward tosses on the play. Running back Cameron Nash made a forward throw on what was supposed to be a lateral before catching the ball from Kingsley.
“That was just a bad operation,” Rossomando said. “It was supposed to go behind him. It was good, actually. It was one of the few good calls by the officials [Saturday].”
“Coaches definitely called that at the right time,” Kingsley said. “We definitely caught them off guard. It’s just a miscommunication on the forward handoff. Besides that, it was a big play, but it was another momentum killer for the offense.”
Then with a little over 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kingsley ran an option play to the left, dislocated his shoulder and was done for the rest of the game.
That left CCSU with three options: play running back Drew Jean-Guillaume out of a wildcat package; use Tyshaun James, Middletown High’s former starting quarterback; and/or burning former Manchester High QB Edison Galan’s redshirt.
Rossomando chose to go with the first two options.
“We’re only a touchdown down,” the coach said. “We had practiced some wildcat stuff with [Jean-Guillaume], who was a high school quarterback, and we thought we had a pretty good package together.
“We said in the second half, we didn’t want to burn our freshman quarterback’s redshirt for that type of deal. He wasn’t ready anyway, to be honest.”
The Blue Devils only made it to or past the Wildcats’ 25-yard line two other times, both in the fourth quarter. CCSU finished with just 248 yards of total offense.
“We just didn’t finish in the red zone,” Rossomando said. “I thought our defense played an unbelievable game. They got stops when they needed them and kept the game at 7-0 going late into the fourth quarter. We just didn’t have enough offense.
“I didn’t think we played great up front [Saturday] and we needed to play outstanding, clean football up front and we didn’t.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @DavidGlovach