The last time St. Francis had Canisius on the ropes, the Red Raiders let the Crusaders off the hook and suffered an embarrassing defeat.
St. Francis learned its lesson – big time. In fact, the Red Raiders learned it so well that they not only gained a measure of revenge but now have a chance to play for an historic championship.
St. Francis is once again the king of Monsignor Martin Athletic Association football as the Red Raiders returned to the top of the mountain by knocking off three-time defending champion and reigning state Catholic champ Canisius, 42-7, before an estimated 2,000 at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Thursday night. It’s St. Francis’ first postseason title since 2011 and seventh since 2002.
The Red Raiders not only defeated the Crusaders but they did so in surprisingly convincing fashion. A defense led by Tauren Davis (seven tackles, three sacks, four tackles for a loss) and Garth Pinnock (two interceptions, one receiving touchdown) forced five turnovers and limited Canisius to 98 yards, including just five rushing.
Jerry Hickson (three touchdown passes), Jarryd Taylor (two touchdown receptions) and Connolly Cup finalist Brandon Metz (116 yards on 23 rushes and three touchdowns) each came up huge on offense as St. Francis beat the Crusaders for the first time since Oct. 29, 2011.
“We weren’t mature enough” to beat Canisius, said winning coach Jerry Smith, of that 64-36 loss on Oct. 2, a game in which the Red Raiders had two early two-touchdown leads and went into halftime tied at 28-28. “We matured a tremendous amount in this season. ... We had a tough schedule. We lost some close games. We were scoring all over the place, but my defense couldn’t stop anybody. Now we’ve shored that up and the next thing you know we’re champions.”
St. Francis (7-4), winners of four straight, became the first Western New York program to beat News co-No. 1 Large School Canisius (8-3) since Chad Kelly-led St. Joe’s eeked out a 48-47 decision over the Crusaders in the Monsignor Martin semifinals on Nov. 10, 2011.
The Red Raiders advance to their first New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association championship at 1 p.m. Nov. 28 where they will face either last year’s runner-up Archbishop Stepinac or Cardinal Hayes of New York City at Grand Island High School’s Gene Masters Field.
“We have one more to go which is unbelievable,” said Smith. “It’s history for us. It’s a new adventure.”
“This feels amazing,” Pinnock said.
Early on, it looked as if the blue and gold would leave the home of the Buffalo Bills as champions again. The Crusaders had two golden opportunities to surge to a big lead as a bad snap on a punt gave them a drive start at St. Francis’ 10 and a fumble recovery by Colby Moultrie gave them another at the Red Raiders’ 25. Canisius came up empty on both those possessions as it missed a 28-yard field goal wide right into a blustery wind and turned the ball over on downs the second time.
In between those possessions, the Crusaders drew first blood as senior quarterback Tyler Stranahan bounced off a potential sack and hooked up with Desmond Nicholas on a 51-yard touchdown pass with 6:52 left in the first quarter.
St. Francis seized control later in the quarter, scoring twice in 71 seconds as a 30-yard touchdown by Metz was followed by an 8-yard touchdown pass from Hickson to Taylor to make it 13-7 with 51 seconds left in the quarter. The second TD was set up by Pinnock’s interception as the ball went to him after teammate Michael Williams almost came up with the nice one-handed pick.
“When you don’t put points on the board when you get chances like that, it hurts,” Canisius coach Rich Robbins said. “We just got outplayed. The better team won tonight.”
After a 9-yard scoring run by Metz early in the second quarter, Pinnock’s second interception led to an eight-play drive capped by 22-yard touchdown strike to Taylor from Hickson with 1:09 left in the half. St. Francis led, 26-7, at intermission.
Still, Canisius did put up 36 second-half points on the Red Raiders the last time the teams played each other.
That seems so long ago as the Crusaders had nothing Thursday. St. Francis forced three straight three-and-outs to open the second half, and Pinnock caught a 30-yard touchdown to make it 32-7 with 4:07 left in the third. At that point, it was just by how much would St. Francis win. Michael Williams and Bo Sireika also made interceptions for the Red Raiders.
“This is awesome,” said Hickson, who completed 12-of-26 passes for 179 yards. “We all knew we had it in us.”