After experiencing the hard knocks of 0-10 in its FCS debut, LIU gained some satisfaction in its downsized sophomore season.
The Sharks won their Northeast Conference finale at home on Sunday, beating Merrimack, 31-20, to finish at 2-2.
Jonathan DeBique had a career-high 154 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, Conor Regan threw for 163 yards and two TDs, and four players picked off a pass. Those were among the LIU highlights on this closing day of a season that was pushed back and condensed due to the pandemic.
"It means the world," DeBique, a redshirt junior from Baldwin, said of the former D-II program winning twice. "We obviously had bigger aspirations to win the conference this spring, but I’m glad we got two and finished even.
"I think it was very important that we played. There’s nothing like game experience, especially with a young group, especially after last season, coming from 0-10. We needed the confidence again."
Merrimack (0-3) quickly grabbed a 6-0 lead on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Jack Esquivel to Pat Conroy, but the Sharks countered by scoring on their next three possessions.
Steven Chambers made a 31-yard reception that set them up at the 1-yard line. DeBique, who plans to return next season, ran left and spun in on the next play.
Regan found Derick Eugene along the left sideline on the next drive, good for 30 yards to get to the 5. Domonhic Jennings ran it in from the 2.
After a Ricco Aaron Jr. interception, DeBique broke off a 58-yard run to the 2 before Regan hit Damien Caffrey for the score. That made it 21-6 just 2:21 into the second quarter.
It was 24-12 in the final minute of the half, with Merrimack threatening at the LIU 11. Esquivel fired over the middle, but Bryce Campbell intercepted at the 2 and returned it 59 yards.
"It was good for momentum, going to halftime with the team pumped up," Campbell said. " . . . I think our defense did a tremendous job."
Merrimack got to the Sharks’ 17 after a muffed punt in the third quarter, but the defense held and Tariq Snead blocked Matt Sokol’s try for a 34-yard field goal. Larry Elder, who made 11 tackles and broke up three passes, ran back to Merrimack’s 6.
On third-and-goal from the 11, Regan threw over the middle to Eugene for an 11-yard score and the margin swelled to 19.
"We made the plays happen, especially when it was needed to happen," Regan said.
So where’s LIU football headed from here?
"Only up," Campbell said, "for sure."