Football to host LIU in Northeast-10 Championship Game


Seth Dussault, Sports Editor

SPRINGFIELD, Mass.—For the second year in a row, the American International College football team has earned the right to host the Northeast-10 Conference Championship Football Game. This year, they will battle the LIU-Post Pioneers.

The Yellow Jackets finished the regular season at 8-1 in conference play, while LIU went 7-2.

AIC won at LIU earlier this season on the narrowest of margins as senior quarterback Kevin Arduino scored the winning touchdown on a fourth-and-goal rush from the LIU one-yard line with :29 seconds to go to put AIC ahead 27-24; the Pioneers made a desperate attempt to tie the game up but a buzzer-beater field goal went wide.

Both teams are used to close games; LIU’s season included a five-point win over New Haven, a three-point win over Stonehill, a four-point win last week against Bentley, and a one-point squeaker against Assumption, while AIC had a two-point win over the Greyhounds and won by three against Bentley and Merrimack in addition to over LIU.

The toughest task for AIC will be defending the aerial assault that is the LIU attack. Pioneers quarterback Stephen Laurino averages 289.2 passing yards per game, third in the conference, along with 23 touchdown passes, second in the league; his two favored targets, Kamron Palmer and Shane Hubbard, both have brought down seven touchdown passes, tied for fourth in the NE-10. In addition, Laurino’s 17 rushing touchdowns leads the conference.

If any team can slow down this gifted offense, it would be AIC: the Jackets have the stingiest scoring defense in the conference at 19.7 points per game allowed, and have generated a conference-best 27 turnovers, including 16 interceptions and 11 fumbles.

A huge portion of that comes down to a dominant defensive line that includes sophomore Andrew Justice and his 5.5 sacks and classmate Omari Manhertz’s 11 tackles-for-loss, as well as a set of linebackers that get involved in the play very well. Senior Jaquawne Simpkins leads the team with 80 tackles and three fumble recoveries, while junior Demetrius Steed is right behind him with 68, including four sacks.

On the outside, safety Daquan Holmes leads the conference with seven interceptions, while Darion Chappel and Carron McCluney each have a pair. Mike Ford has one interception, and has broke up a team-best 12 passes; the quartet have combined for 25 break-ups total, meaning that the deep ball is rarely an option.

The Pioneers defense is built around linebacker Anthony Brunetti. With a team leading 101 tackles on the year, he has also forced three fumbles and intercepted four passes.

LIU rarely blitzes. They do not need to, as senior lineman David Sumter has 8.5 sacks while classmates Dan Belfiore and Manny Dopazo each have recorded 4.5. Sumter also leads the team in tackles-for-loss with 11.5, while Belfiore has 8.5.

If the line can be held, however, the Jackets should find some passing options. The Pioneers allow an average of 263.8 yards per game in the air, ahead of only Pace and New Haven in the conference. That includes 350 against the Jackets in the earlier matchup.

That gives Arduino options, such as Stephan Davis, who leads the conference with ten touchdown receptions. Davis has averaged 72.1 yards in the air per game on 3.9 receptions per matchup; second to him is Evan Graham, who has hauled in 3.6 catches per contest on average, worth 55.5 yards, and Maurice Easterling, who takes in an average of 3.3 and goes for 46.9 yards.

On the ground, Terrell Williams and Arduino have combined to average 100 rushing yards per game. The versatility of Arduino in particular has always proven hard for defenses to stop.

There is more on the line for both teams than a Northeast-10 Championship. The winner will likely be the only representative in the conference for the NCAA Tournament. AIC is currently ranked fifth in the region, and a quality win might be enough to move the team to fourth and earn them a first-round home game for just the second time in school history.

AIC and LIU kick off at 1 p.m. at Ronald J. Abdow Field on Saturday.