Wittenberg football players repeated the number moments before the opening kickoff of the 2021 season: “658 days.”
That’s how long the Tigers had to wait between Nov. 16, 2019, and Sept. 4, 2021, to play a football game because the pandemic robbed them of the 2020 season.
The 2021 season arrived as if little had changed at Edwards-Maurer Field. The players ran out of an inflatable helmet onto the turf just as they did two years ago. Senior safety Jordan Burkey, one of the team’s four captains, led the way, carrying a sledgehammer in his hand.
Joe Fincham, now in his 25th season as head coach, if you don’t count the season that didn’t get played, still presided over everything. The same chants that have echoed on the sideline for decades — “Red, Red!” for example — were heard once again. Fans filled the stands in front of The Steemer, the indoor facility that opened during Wittenberg’s last season in 2019. Even the weather cooperated.
All in all, it was a perfect day for the return of football. Wittenberg’s performance, however, was far from perfect. It gave up two defensive touchdowns, was dominated on the stat sheet and lost 38-16 to SUNY Cortland, an Empire 8 school located 33 miles south of Syracuse, N.Y.
“We’re absolutely grateful we got to play,” Fincham said. “We’ll learn from today. We’re an inexperienced football team right now, and it really showed — particularly offensively.”
Wittenberg made three big mistakes that led to 21 points for Cortland.
• On the first play of the season, quarterback Collin Brown, a sophomore who beat out senior Bobby Froelich to start the opener, threw a backwards pass that was recovered in the end zone by Cortland linebacker Dylan Dubuque 12 seconds into the game.
“We thought it was a forward pass,” Fincham said. “That’s what’s supposed to be. We’ll look at it on tape.”
• Although Brown made everyone forget that play by throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass to Jake Saus on Wittenberg’s next possession, another Wittenberg mistake in the second quarter would lead to Cortland’s second touchdown.
This time, it was a fumbled punt that Cortland recovered at the Wittenberg 32-yard line. Wittenberg coaches argued Michael Fiessinger was down when he lost the ball, but the officials awarded the ball to Cortland, which capitalized by scoring on a 5-yard run by Brees Sagala. The Red Dragons took a 24-7 lead.
• Then in the third quarter, about five minutes after Wittenberg had seized the momentum on Brown’s second touchdown pass (58 yards to Sam Kayser), Brown threw an interception that Christian Legagneur returned 30 yards for a score. The Tigers trailed 31-14.
A punting mishap by Cortland resulted in a safety for Wittenberg early in the fourth quarter and offered brief hope. The Tigers had a chance to trim the deficit to eight points on the ensuing possession. They had 2nd-and-goal at the Cortland 1-yard line with just over 11 minutes to play. But Froelich, who took over when Brown was hit hard in the second half, lost a yard on a run and then threw two straight incompletions.
Cortland put the game out of reach with a 58-yard pass from Brees Segala to JJ Laap on its next possession.
Two years ago, the last time it played a season, Cortland finished 8-3. It hired a new coach, Curt Fitzpatrick, in February of 2020. The teams did not do a film exchange, so there were unknowns on both sides. Cortland had a large size advantage, especially on the offensive line with one starter who stood 6-foot-7 and another at 6-5.
Cortland had 24 first downs to Wittenberg’s 12 and outgained Wittenberg 413-269. The Tigers could not get the running game going and finished the game with minus 6 yards, while Cortland ran for 180 yards on 48 carries.
Segala completed 20 of 30 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns. Brown completed 9 of 18 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns.
“One game doesn’t make your season,” Fincham said. “We certainly didn’t play very well as a unit offensively. We gave them 14 points. We didn’t control the line of scrimmage. We’ll regroup. We’ll bounce back.”