The Mercyhurst University football team had seen the scenario before. Twice.
Both times the Lakers were stunned late by the Gannon University football team.
But before 1,560 fans at Gannon University Field Saturday and a television audience on Fox and Root Sports Pittsburgh, the Lakers — and Brandon Brown-Dukes — weren’t about to let their arch rivals derail a five-game win streak.
In a clash pitting two teams heading in completely opposite directions, the PSAC West-leading Lakers forced five turnovers and grounded out 269 rushing yards — 192 of which came from their star running back — in their 38-29 win.
Gannon coach Brad Rzyczycki said the team is still trying to turn it around.
“The good thing is when you turn on the film to the kids this week, they’re oblivious to what’s being said outside the program,” Rzyczycki said.
The Lakers, winners of their last six after dropping their season-opener to non-conference Notre Dame College, took back the Niagara Cup from the Knights, whose losing streak has reached six after beating Lake Erie College 36-33 on Aug. 30.
“We’re a lot more upbeat than I expected,” senior defensive back Ashton Jones said. “I came into this week thinking I needed to rile up the guys as a senior, but it wasn’t needed.”
After the Knights had staged dramatic second-half comebacks to beat the Lakers the last two years, Mercyhurst took the lead for good on L.J. Stevens’ 83-yard kickoff return for a touchdown late in the first half Saturday. It came right after sophomore Justin Caliste returned a punt 65 yards to tie the game at 14.
Turnovers in three of the Knights’ first four possessions spotted Mercyhurst to a 14-0 first quarter lead on a 16-yard pass and a 1-yard run by quarterback Anthony Vendemia. He later ran for another 1-yard score just before halftime to make it 28-14.
The Lakers methodically salted the game away on tough running between the tackles from Brown-Dukes, whose fourth game of more than 150 yards this season came on 30 carries, 17 of which were in the second half.
This was in stark contrast to the Knights who managed just 11 yards on 21 tries as a team.
“Our running game really hasn’t been all that absent, what’s hurt us statistically is me taking too many sacks,” said quarterback Liam Nadler, who was sacked five times Saturday.
Nadler broke the school record for yards in a game for the second time this season, as his 428 yards on 25-of-42 attempts was eight yards more than against Lake Erie.
He also found sophomore Abraham Ocasio for his PSAC-West leading seventh and eighth receiving touchdowns in the second half. His 82-yarder in the third quarter cut Mercyhurst’s lead to 10 before Brown-Dukes’ 37-yard run on the ensuing possession broke it open.
“We’re getting more comfortable together,” Nadler said. “From working with them over the summer, we’re able to go over the issues and correct them.”
Mercyhurst took a 10-5-1 advantage in the all-time series.
As the losses for the Knights begin to pile up, so too do the injuries.
The Knights lost Caliste Saturday when he hurt his ankle in the third quarter and needed to be helped off the field. Rzyczycki said he would be evaluated by doctors this week and his status is uncertain.
They will also likely play the rest of the season without starting strong safety Khayree Connors-McChristian, who broke his leg in practice last week. That leaves the starting job to freshman Matt Astorino, who made five tackles Saturday.
Jones led Gannon’s defense with 12 tackles.
“Khayree’s my best friend on the team, so when he went down it was traumatic for me, but the younger players have made a lot of progress,” Jones said. “I think the coaches did a good job preparing the team.”
The Knights will play 15th-ranked California University of Pennsylvania (6-1 overall, 4-0) noon Saturday as part of Gannon’s homecoming celebration.