As much as Canisius enjoys the challenge of playing against some of the top football teams that Ohio and Pennsylvania have to offer, it’s never lost on the Crusaders that playing St. Joe’s means a little extra something.
The teams meet annually during the regular season and have crossed paths in the playoffs, but the stage doesn’t get any bigger than playing against one another at New Era Field for a championship.
While the 89th installment of the rivalry that dates back to 1921 was as close as they’ve come in recent years, it was the Crusaders faithful whose chants of “I believe that we have won” echoed throughout the stadium in the end.
Canisius forced timely turnovers and stopped the Marauders as time expired to beat its arch rival, 22-14, for a school-record ninth time in a row while winning a second straight Monsignor Martin title and fifth in the last six years.
The Crusaders advanced to the state Catholic championship next Saturday, which will be played at the Robert J. Stransky Memorial Complex in West Seneca at noon against Archbishop Stepinac, which beat St. Anthony’s Saturday night, 47-22.
Canisius won state titles in 2014 and 2016 while having to travel downstate, so this is the first time it will get to play in the confines of home.
“It means a lot, especially to our seniors, our four-year guys who have worked ... through the system,” said Canisius quarterback Jayce Johnson, who earned offensive MVP honors with a pair of rushing touchdowns. “To play our last home game as the state championship, you can’t write that stuff in a script.”
Junior linebacker Joe Jamison was named defensive MVP for his 10 tackles, sack and 26-yard strip-and-score that gave the Crusaders their first lead with 11:12 left on the clock.
“Play of the game,” Canisius coach Rich Robbins said. “It’s a huge play in a close game like this to get a turnover and then score with it. But that’s something that Joe does. ... He’s probably the best kid I’ve ever seen at stripping that ball out.”
Jamison’s three rushing touchdowns and three forced fumbles played a huge part in the 55-16 Week 4 blowout over St. Joe’s at New Era Field, but Saturday’s game couldn’t have been played out any differently.
Canisius expected that coming in.
“We knew they were pretty banged up the first time, so that score didn’t mean anything,” Robbins said. “Even if it was a close game in the regular season, it doesn’t mean anything. Once you get in the playoffs, it’s a new season.”
St. Joe’s scored on the first possession of the game on a seven-play, 80-yard drive capped off by a 21-yard run up the middle by junior Jaden Lofton (21 carries, 98 yards). Junior QB Casey Kelly converted the two-point run to give the Marauders an 8-0 lead 2:57 into the first.
After punts on the next two drives, Johnson scored his first TD on a 34-yard zone read with 46 seconds left in the opening frame. Junior Tristan Vandenberg kicked the extra point to make it 8-7 at the end of one.
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The Marauders then went on another 80-yard drive, this time 11 plays long. Kelly completed a 36-yard screen pass to Lofton on a key third down before the QB punched it in on a fourth-and-goal run from the 1 that needed a second effort. Lofton’s run failed on the conversion, so St. Joe’s led, 14-7, with 6:33 left in the half.
Crusaders junior Joel Nicholas (13 tackles, sack) returned the following kickoff from his 14 to St. Joe’s 20 to set up a 15-yard Johnson TD run two plays later on a fake jet sweep. Vandenberg’s PAT tied it at 14-14.
St. Joe’s controlled the ball for the final 5:25 of the half, making it all the way to the Canisius 16 thanks to a defensive pass interference penalty that gave the Marauders an untimed down. Micah Brown threw a pass to Kelly, who was split out wide, in the corner of the end zone but Rutgers-commit Paul Woods (seven tackles) came up with an interception to end the half.
Canisius had the best of the scoring chances in the third quarter, but couldn’t capitalize on a fumble recovery and a 39-yard Vandenberg field goal attempt that had plenty of distance but bounced off the right upright.
On the third play of the ensuing St. Joe’s drive, Jamison (10 carries, 82 yards) stripped St. Joe’s ball-carrier Keon Howard clean of the ball and returned it to the house.
“My teammates, they kind of stood him up in the hole and I looked for the ball and I saw the ball, so I just grabbed it,” Jamison said. “It’s something I’ve been working on all year.”
A fake punt by St. Joe’s on a fourth and 5 gave it its first first down of the second half, but Canisius was able to force a turnover on downs.
The Marauders then did the same with 2:52 left at their own 41 to give them one last chance to even the score.
Kelly converted a fourth and 13 with a pass to Brown, and then ran for 25 yards on a fourth and 23 to bring St. Joe’s to the Canisius 22 with 15 seconds left. (The Marauders as a team were six for seven on fourth downs.)
St. Joe’s had three passes left.
The first was broken up by Woods in the corner of the end zone with two Marauders receivers in the vicinity.
Canisius had a pass interference penalty called on the next play to give St. Joe’s half the distance closer.
The last was a contested pass knocked away at the goal line by Canisius.
“I’m getting a little old for that” Robbins said. “The heart was really goin’ there, and it was just great to see that last incompletion hit the ground and zeroes on the clock. That’s the moment that you play sports for.”
When all was said and done, St. Joe’s (7-5) outgained Canisius (8-3) on offense, 274-226, and on the ground, 244-171. The Marauders had 28:15 of possession as opposed to 19:45 for the Crusaders.
Simply put, they executed their gameplan successfully by keeping Canisius’ high-powered offense off the field while doing what they do best: running the rock.
“I’m proud to coach them,” St. Joe’s coach Derek Landri said. “I’m proud to be their coach. These kids fought for each other. They played for each other. Everything as a coach you ask them to do, they did, and we ran out of time today.
“We’re a young team, a good young team. I told the kids in there, I told them last night too, I love them to death. I love everything that they bring. I’m looking forward to what this young team has in store for next year.”