By Larry Fleisher, special to Pittsburgh Sports Now
NEW YORK — On the surface, a game with 77 combined points and 802 combined yards may not appear as if it had been defined by big plays from a stout defense.
Not to mention plenty of A.J. Hines, who when he wasn’t ripping off one big carry after another on the way to a dazzling 232-yard performance was watching defense make big play after big play.
The combination of Hines and constant timely plays by the defense resulted in Duquesne exiting Staten Island with a 47-30 win over Wagner on Saturday, setting up next week’s showdown with NEC leader Sacred Heart.
“At halftime we got them talking about just doing your job and big plays will come to you, so they bought into that,” Dukes coach Jerry Schmitt said.
They sure did.
Duquesne allowed 184 yards at halftime while trailing 23-21. Then the Dukes held Wagner to five straight three and outs to open the second half and when the third quarter ended, they held a 27-23 lead on Daniel Parr’s two-yard before adding to it on Nehardi Crawford’s brilliant 37-yard run on a nifty reverse, which was set up by a 38-yard rumble down the left sideline on the final play of the third.
“I’m so glad,” Hines said of the defense. “They picked us up, especially in the slow start at the beginning of the second half.”
There was a big stop on 3-and-16, another key stop on 3-and-11 followed by one on 3-and-12. Then came the biggest defensive play of the game when Leandro DeBrito stepped into the passing lane and returned T.J. Linta’s pass down the left sideline 68 yards for a 33-23 lead with 12:07 left in the fourth quarter.
When defenders were not stepping into passing lanes and stopping Wagner on third-and-long, they were bottling up Ryan Fulse.
Containing Fulse was a major theme of Saturday. Fulse came into the game averaging 132.4 yards and the nation’s leading rusher at 1,209 yards but the Dukes held him to 54 yards on 20 carries for an average of 2.7 yards.
The big plays and runs by Hines kept the Dukes (6-3, 3-1) within striking distance of Sacred Heart who visits Rooney Field next week.
While Hines was carving up Wagner’s defense and watching his defenders come up with big plays in the second half, Sacred Heart was rolling to a 38-7 win over Robert Morris roughly 86 miles north of blustery Staten Island.
“It’s a big win today,” Hines said. “Every win is a big win. So just it week by week. We know who we got coming in next week.”
Eventually the defense’s ability to make big plays allowed the offense to get going and produce their second-highest point total of the season while racking up 372 of its 497 yards on the ground.
The Dukes faced a pair of nine point deficits before Hines rushed in from one yard out with 48 seconds left before halftime.
The ability of the defense to step up and deliver big plays occurred about two and a half hours after longtime NFL offensive coordinator turned color commentator Kevin Gilbride told the ESPN3 audience his thoughts on Duquesne recent developments by saying: “I think they’re starting to crest as a football team.”
It took a little while as the Dukes played 322 feet above sea level in the shadow of the New York City skyline but once they returned from a 20-minute halftime break that featured some motivating words, the crest continued with the biggest game of the season next on the docket.