6,293 screaming Pioneer fans exploded with excitement as junior linebacker Ernest Howard jumped in front of a flat route, sealing an overtime victory over Dartmouth College with a well-timed interception on Saturday, Sept. 24.
Sacred Heart University’s riveting 38-31 overtime victory could be considered a bit of an upset. The Pioneers went into the game a considerable underdog, with the Dartmouth program in the midst of a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) best 20 game win streak in non-conference matchups.
“To battle back from being down two scores twice, it’s huge,” said Head Coach Mark Nofri. “It’s huge for our kids–it says a lot about their resiliency and what their mindset was on Saturday. They weren’t going to lose, and I couldn’t be prouder and happier for them.”
Current students and alumni alike poured into Campus Field to witness the first home football game of the year during homecoming.
“It feels like every time we come out here, we break a new record for attendance,” said graduate student linebacker DeAndre Byrd.
Byrd, who had 8 tackles in the win, is an anchor on the Pioneers defense.
The Pioneers are a battle-tested team that has won the Northeast Conference (NEC) Championship the past two seasons and are determined to achieve the illustrious three-peat. Even with the program’s success, they had not been able to claim a victory over Dartmouth in 10 years. That changed with the overtime victory.
Senior quarterback Marquez McCray threw for 276 yards and one touchdown, as well as adding another on the ground. McCray finished the game completing 31 of 36 passes, none more important than his 47-yard connection with wide receiver Rob DiNota late in the fourth quarter.
DiNota, a grad student and a fellow captain, caught seven passes for 89 yards and a touchdown, as well as adding another 60 punt return yards, leading Sacred Heart in all-purpose yards on the day.
“Marquez trusted me, and got me the ball over the middle, and I did what I could do to make a play,” said DiNota. “It’s a group effort. It’s the o-line giving him the time to throw the ball, and it’s the other receivers running their routes to open up holes.”
The Pioneers second half offense was spearheaded by 2021 NEC Offensive Player of the Year Malik Grant, who racked up 103 rushing yards and the final three scores of the game as SHU outscored Dartmouth 21-10 in the second half and overtime.
Grant, following in the footsteps of Sacred Heart great Julius Chestnut, has earned high praise from coaches and players alike.
“He’s a leader and a tough kid. The team respects him,” said Nofri.
On the defensive side of the ball, it was Howard who continuously stymied the Dartmouth offense, leading a number of crucial defensive stands in the fourth quarter and overtime. He accumulated 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and reeled in in the game-saving INT.
“Being here at Campus Field, it’s a whole different environment,” said Howard. “It’s a good feeling, knowing everybody is watching you.”
Grant and Howard both picked up NEC honors for their performances in the comeback win, respectively taking home the NEC Offensive and Defensive Player of the Week awards.
Sacred Heart sits at 3-2 overall and 1-0 in the NEC after their 31-14 win over Norfolk State on Sept. 30 and look to continue their dominance at home. The program has now won 12 straight games at Campus Field, but still believes there is plenty of room for improvement.
“We don’t want to take a step back,” said Nofri. “Hopefully after Saturday’s win, we can continue to climb and get better each week.”
The Pioneers are next in action on Oct. 15 when they take on NEC newcomer Stonehill College at home on Campus Field in celebration of Family Weekend at 1 p.m.
Sacred Heart Athletics contributed to this article.