WORCESTER, Mass. - Plymouth State College captured a share of the Freedom Football Conference championship Saturday after downing Worcester Polytechnic Institute 43-13 in the regular season finale at Alumni Field.
The Panthers won their final three games to finish at 7-3 overall and 5-1 in FFC games. PSC shares the title with Western Connecticut, which completed its season at 7-1 overall and 5-1 in conference play with a 16-7 victory at Norwich University. It is Plymouth State's first FFC Championship since winning consecutive titles in 1994 and 1995.
Western Connecticut receives the FFC's automatic bid into the NCAA Division III Tournament, earning the tiebreaker over PSC based on head-to-head play. The Panthers are hoping for an ECAC post-season berth when the announcement is made on Monday.
"This is a great feeling," said PSC senior co-captain Chris Kelliher (Goffstown, N.H.). "It's great for the 20 seniors on this team to go out on top. We did everything we could to earn an NCAA berth, but to have the chance to go out with a conference title and an ECAC championship is a great feeling."
Senior TE John Walters (Wells, Maine) caught five passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Panther offense. He caught both his touchdown passes in the third quarter, breaking open what had been a close game to that point.
PSC outgained the Engineers in total yards, 403 to 214, and had three different players throw touchdown passes. Sophomore Ryan Diamond (Plymouth, N.H.) completed all four of his passes for 53 yards and two TDs, junior Matt Simpson (Auburn, Maine) was 12-for-23 for 175 yards and a pair of scores, and senior WR Larry Francoeur (Somersworth, N.H.) completed a 25-yard TD pass to Walters on an option pass.
Both teams scored on their opening drive, PSC getting a Simpson-to-Jeff Robinson (White River Jct., Vt.) 15-yard TD pass play and WPI countering with a Preston Roberts (New York, N.Y.) 35-yard burst.
PSC picked up a safety early in the second quarter when senior LB Brian Chaplain (Hooksett, N.H.) tackled the WPI quarterback in the end zone. That was set up by a 49-yard punt by senior Bobby Maylone (Manchester, N.H.) that was downed at the WPI one-yard line.
The Panthers took a 16-7 lead into halftime after Simpson hit junior Jay Zinis (Manchester, N.H.) on a 44-yard pass play for a score with six minutes remaining in the second quarter.
Plymouth State put the game away in the third quarter with three pass plays for touchdowns. Junior Jason Bordas (Elmore, Vt.) caught a five-yarder from Diamond, and Walters caught a pair -- a 25-yarder from Francoeur and a 21-yarder from Diamond.
Each team scored a TD in the closing moments of the game, with PSC senior FB Greg Johnson (Sebago, Maine) going over on a two-yard burst and WPI receiver Andre King (Hartford, Conn.) scoring on a 20-yard pass play from reserve QB Adam Ralston (Olean, N.Y.).
WPI was hurt by the injuries to several key players, including starting quarterback Chris Busso (Smithtown, N.Y.), who was a Gold Helmet winner a week ago.
Leading the Panther defensive effort were seniors Chaplain, Kelliher and Mike Pelletier (Concord, N.H.). Chaplain registered five tackles, including two sacks, a forced fumble and a safety, Kelliher added eight tackles, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, and Pelletier contributed a pass break-up and his team-leading fourth interception of the season.
"WPI lost some key guys to injuries, but I thought our defense played well," said PSC head coach Chris Rorke.
The Panthers, who recorded their 22nd consecutive non-losing season, will have to wait until Monday to see if their season continues.
"Nobody wants to stop playing," said Chaplain. "Hopefully next week we'll get another shot."