Panthers win MASCAC title, earn NCAA bid
FITCHBURG, Mass. – Plymouth State University scored a pair of defensive touchdowns en route to a 24-7 win over Fitchburg State University in the team's Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) regular season finale.
PSU has now won seven straight league games to move to 7-1 in the conference and 9-1 overall. The Panther win, coupled with Framingham State's 39-35 victory over Western Connecticut, guarantee Plymouth State at least a share of the regular season title.
PSU will receive the MASCAC's automatic qualifier into the NCAA Tournament by virtue of the Panthers' 16-13 overtime win over the Rams in week seven. It will be PSU's first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2008 squad won the New England Football Conference (NEFC) title with a perfect 7-0 mark.
Plymouth State got on the board early, scoring on its first possession following a three-and-out by the Falcons (3-6, 2-5 MASCAC). The Panthers chewed up nearly eight minutes on a 10-play, 80-yard drive, capped off by a two-yard touchdown run by junior Mitch Banuskevich (Milford, N.H.). Banuskevich kicked off the drive with a 26-yard burst and sophomore David Hamilton (Westville, N.J.) added a 15-yard rush to move the ball into FSU territory.
The Falcons had a chance to cut into the lead on their next possession, but a field goal attempt sailed wide right and the 7-0 score would hold through the remainder of the half.
The Panthers doubled their lead with a defensive score early in the third quarter. On a second-and-five from midfield, freshman Zac Garside (Londonderry, N.H.) got into the backfield and pulled quarterback Connor Fitzsimons (Flushing, N.Y.) down for a 10-yard loss while jarring the ball free. Senior Jack Howarth (Portsmouth, N.H.) picked up the loose ball and rumbled 40 yards into the end zone to put PSU ahead 14-0.
The Panthers upped the lead to 17-0 two possessions later. Banuskevich and Hamilton combined to rush for 29 yards, setting up freshman kicker Jeremy Martin (Charlton, Mass.) for a 36-yard field goal.
The Falcons responded with their best drive of the day. Down three scores with just over nine minutes to play, Fitzsimons went to the air to move deep into Panther territory. Senior running back Jevon Brown-Simpson (Lynn, Mass.) punched the ball in from five yards out to make it a 17-7 game. The key play of the drive came on a third-and-ten from the PSU 31, when Fitzsimons connected with Brown-Simpson for 12 yards to keep the drive alive.
The PSU offense followed with a three-and-out, but the defense came up huge yet again. On a second and one from the Fitchburg 18, junior Malcolm Huesman (Burlington, Vt.) jumped in front of a Fitzsimons pass and returned it 26 yards to the house. The pick-six, coupled with Martin's extra point, accounted for the final 24-7 score.
Banuskevich ended the day with 96 rushing yards on 23 carries and the one touchdown, to go along with 20 receiving yards on a pair of catches. Hamilton added 69 yards on just eight carries (8.6 yds/carry), but once again it was the Panther defense that led the charge.
Junior Grant McGregor (Burlington, Conn.) finished with a team-best 11 tackles (five solo) and a forced fumble. Sophomore Matt Shea (Windham, N.H.) added 10 tackles (six solo) and Huesman chipped in with nine (six solo). The defense came up with three sacks, none bigger than Garside's strip-sack, among five tackles for a loss. More importantly were the three forced turnovers and two defensive scores.
Plymouth State is on its bye week next Saturday (Nov. 11), then will enjoy learning its seeding and opponent for the NCAA Tournament during the NCAA Division III Football Selection Show, which will air on NCAA.com on Sunday, November 12 (5:30 p.m.).
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