The 24th-ranked Case Western Reserve University Spartans overcame a 19-point second half deficit, including an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter, to keep their perfect season intact with a 26-22 win over Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania on Saturday afternoon.
The comeback kept the Spartans' hopes for an NCAA Postseason berth and the first Presidents' Athletic Conference Championship alive, as the team improved to 9-0 overall, and to 7-0 in the PAC with one game remaining on the season. Case Western Reserve can clinch a share of the conference title, the first in the program's history, with a win over Carnegie Mellon University in the 31st-Annual Academic Bowl at DiSanto Field next Saturday.
Westminster dropped to 6-3 overall, including a 4-3 record in the PAC.
Trailing 22-3 with 3:22 remaining in the third quarter, the Spartans scored the final 23 points in the game, including a go-ahead touchdown from junior running back Jacob Burke on a fourth-down run on the goal line, giving CWRU a four-point lead with 4:25 remaining. Needing a touchdown, Westminster would drive down the field, reaching the Spartans' three yard line. However, on first and goal, junior linebacker Justin McMahon recovered a fumble by Westminster running back Dom McKinley, securing the win for the Spartans.
The Spartans' second half performance was a stark contrast from the first, where the team was held scoreless for a half for the first time this season. CWRU fell into an early hole in the game, when a bad snap on a punt went out the back of the end zone for a safety. Case Western Reserve's defense would force a punt on the drive that followed the ensuing free kick, but on the first play of the next drive, a pass by junior quarterback Rob Cuda was tipped at the line and intercepted by Westminster's CJ Armstrong, who returned it 12 yards for a score, extending the Titans' lead to 9-0 in the first quarter.
Westminster extended its lead with 5:51 remaining in the second quarter on a 45-yard touchdown run by Bryce Hill, and after a failed two-point conversion, would carry a 15-0 advantage into halftime.
While the Spartans finished the first half with 135 yards, including 104 through the air, and was only outgained by 10 yards by the Titans, the team failed to convert on fourth down on all five of its tries during the first 30 minutes, and went 0-6 on third down.
Case Western Reserve got on the board on the opening drive of the second half, as junior Ben Carniol capped off a 13 play, 56 yard drive with a 26-yard field goal, cutting the lead to 15-3. However, a one-yard touchdown run by Westminster's Bill Madeja with 3:22 in the period gave the Titans their biggest lead of the game, 22-3.
From there, the Spartans' offense went to work. With 1:50 remaining in the third, sophomore Justin Phan caught an 11-yard pass from Cuda, and sophomore Joey Spitalli converted a two-point conversion on a pass from Cuda to cut the lead to 22-11. Early in the fourth quarter, the Spartans would capitalize off a forced fumble by freshman safety Patrick Crossey that was recovered by junior cornerback Adrian Cannon, turning the turnover into a 15-yard touchdown pass from Cuda to junior receiver Brendan Lynch with 9:44 remaining in the game. A two-point conversion run by Cuda brought the Spartans back within a field goal, 22-19.
After the Spartans' defense forced a three-and-out on Westminster's next drive, the Spartans struck quickly on their next possession, as Cuda completed passes of 32 yards and 15 yards to freshman Adam Zybko to start the drive. A pass interference call moved the ball inside the Westminster 10 yard line, and a first-down run by Cuda put the ball on the goal line. After two failed attempts by Cuda to sneak the ball into the end zone, Burke was able to give the Spartans the lead with the touchdown run, his 16th of the year.
Case Western Reserve's defense would bend but not break on the ensuing drive, and McMahon's fumble recovery with 39 seconds remaining allowed the Spartans to run out the clock for the victory.
Lynch finished the game with five receptions for 104 yards, and became just the fourth wide receiver in program history to break the 1,000-yard mark in a season. In addition, the touchdown catch was his 12th of the year, one shy of the school single-season record.
Zybko added career-highs with four receptions and 64 yards, and Burke finished the game with 17 carries for a hard-earned 78 yards and the go-ahead score. Cuda completed 16-of-33 passes for 257 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Spartan defense held Westminster to 330 total yards in the game, including just 62 passing yards. Crossey finished with 13 tackles and the forced fumble, while junior safety Daniel Fabiniak added nine tackles and an interception.
With the win, Case Western Reserve can claim a share of the PAC Championship with a fin in their final regular game of the season next week. Despite Saturday's win, 13th-ranked Thomas More was able to clinch the PAC Title and its automatic berth to the NCAA Championships with their win over Thiel College, by virtue of the conference tiebreaker (conference strength of schedule). However, a win by the Spartans next Saturday should help to strengthen their resume for a potential at large bid to the NCAA playoffs.
The Spartans will look to secure their PAC Title share and record the fifth undefeated regular season in program history when the team hosts Carnegie Mellon in Cleveland on Saturday, November 12th, with kickoff scheduled for 2:00 p.m. Next weekend's game will also be 'Senior Day' for the 13 graduating members of the Case Western Reserve football team, who will be honored during a special ceremony prior to the start of the game.