In an autumn when Division III college football across the country was lost to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and the Coast Guard Academy figured out a way to play a one-game season Saturday.
In one of the nation’s fiercest rivalries — Division III’s version of Army-Navy — host Merchant Marine Academy ended up hoisting the Secretaries’ Cup after a 24-14 victory that included a relentless triple-option running attack, several big plays in the defensive secondary and a successful conversion of five fourth downs.
"It means everything," USMMA senior Matt Restifo said. "Even if we’d had a normal season or played a bowl game, the Secretaries’ Cup is always the biggest game. It’s about honor, and this year was extra amped up because it was first game, last game and only game."
The Mariners wrote a powerful opening stanza with a 14-play drive on the game’s first possession. It included three successful fourth-down conversions and was capped by junior quarterback Ian Blankenship’s leap behind the right side of the line for a 1-yard touchdown.
Their closing stanza was just as strong. Coast Guard used all of its timeouts in a bid to get the ball back, and the Mariners had fourth-and-1 at their own 32-yard line with 3:28 to play. Coach Mike Toop, perhaps with some coaxing from his offense and a 10-point lead, decided to go for it and Restifo took a toss left for 6 yards and the first down, helping to run out the clock.
"Go big or go home," Toop said. "We had the chance to win the game right there, so we went for it. Punting was a consideration . . . [But] it’s hard to stop us when we need 1 yard."
The Mariners never trailed and their rushing attack kept them in control as they won for the fifth time in the teams’ last six meetings. They rolled up 343 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 71 carries (and 411 total yards on 82 plays).
Blankenship had 151 yards on 29 carries and freshman Ceaser Gonzalez rushed 22 times for 103 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown. Restifo also had a 4-yard touchdown run with 4:48 left to push the lead to 10 points.
USMMA’s defensive backs produced a standout performance. They limited Bears top receiver Justin Moffat to a single catch for 5 yards and got three big pass breakups by senior Dylan Brown.
Sophomore Connor Caffrey made an interception for one of the biggest plays of the game. The Mariners were up three points in the third quarter when Caffrey leaped high to pick off John Barbera’s pass toward the sideline at the Mariners’ 43. USMMA then went 57 yards on 11 rushing plays, with Gonzalez taking the ball in from the 1 for a 17-7 lead.
The Bears drew within 17-14 when Barbera hit Jared Colletti for a 24-yard touchdown, but Blankenship helped USMMA answer with a 60-yard drive for Restifo’s score. He had four carries for 39 yards in the drive.
"He’s a gamer," Toop said of Blankenship, who was making his first start behind center. "He never gets rattled . . . He makes the plays that win the game for us, and that’s exactly what he did today."
Barbera finished 18-for-34 passing for 181 yards and Colletti rushed four times for 24 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown. He also had six catches for 88 yards.
Toop said the USMMA campus has been in lockdown since students arrived in July. He wasn’t sure if Saturday’s game would come off until COVID-19 testing results came in Friday morning.
"We tested over 100 people that were going to be on a sideline today and every single test came back negative. It was the same for Coast Guard," he said. "That speaks to the discipline and the character and the commitment these kids have."