2023 Landmark Football

Susquehanna Football Looking To Complete Rise To Top Of Division III

Susquehanna Football Looking To Complete Rise To Top Of Division III

When the 2023 NCAA Division III football season ended last month, Susquehanna was left with a realization - the River Hawks could've been national champs.

Jan 9, 2024 by Briar Napier
Susquehanna Football Looking To Complete Rise To Top Of Division III

When the dust settled on the 2023 NCAA Division III football season last month, Susquehanna’s personnel was left with a realization.

That it could’ve – or arguably should have – been them.

The inaugural Landmark Conference football champions and winners of 21 consecutive regular-season games, the River Hawks gilded their way to a historic 2023 season under ninth-year head coach Tom Perkovich, climbing to as high as No. 9 in the D3football.com national poll during the season for the highest ranking in program history.

But before romping to the Landmark title with the league’s highest-scoring offense (39.3 points per game) and stingiest defense (13.6 points allowed per game), SU tested itself in nonconference play with four hard-fought wins. 

None of them were more impressive, or dramatic, than when the River Hawks stunned then-No. 10 SUNY Cortland on the road in Week 3 by scoring 17 unanswered points in the final 4:09 to win 38-35, with kicker Christian Colasurdo booting a 32-yard field goal as time expired to seal it. 

Cortland and Susquehanna’s seasons from there went on similar trajectories – until the postseason – when the Red Dragons rebounded from their epic meltdown in the most epic of ways.

Set on a collision course for a potential rematch in the second-round of the Division III playoffs, Cortland held its end of the bargain by beating Endicott, but Susquehanna was eliminated, losing at home to Grove City College in the first round after giving up a touchdown in the final minute. 

Less than a month later – after beating Grove City and winning two more times to get to the national championship game – the Red Dragons defeated defending champion North Central for their first national title. Their only blemish of the year came against the River Hawks.

Susquehanna, watching Cortland’s moment of joy from home, felt the sting of missing out through the television.

“No doubt,” Perkovich said, when asked if he and his team wondered if they could’ve been the ones holding up the championship trophy. “Our guys definitely watched. A lot of them watched it and saw what happened. It definitely gets you thinking about what could be.

“I think it’ll lead into the offseason here for our guys to just make sure they’re going to understand that when you get to that level, the days in the offseason matter even more. You can’t let things slide, you’ve got to work incredibly hard and pay attention to detail. Our guys, I think, will get some juice there, knowing we were the only team to (beat Cortland).”

Even with how much talent Susquehanna is slated to return for the 2024 season, the road to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl is going to be far from easy.

And before the River Hawks can seriously contend for a national championship, they first must prove they can turn regular-season success into a playoff run.

Though SU has been largely spectacular across the past four seasons, with Perkovich directing his program to a 39-5 record since 2019 (including the canceled 2020 campaign), it has little postseason success to show for it. 

The River Hawks did not win the Centennial Conference’s automatic bid to the Division III playoffs in 2019 or 2021, and when they finally made it back to the playoffs in 2022 as league champ for the first time since 2009, Utica upset them on their home field in the opening round.

Making it back to the postseason and getting the job done is something of high priority for Perkovich. Fortunately for him, he has plenty of returning stars to help out.

Perkovich said that up to nine offensive starters could return for next season, including reigning Landmark Offensive Player of the Year/star wide receiver Kyle Howes, four of the five starting offensive linemen and the fearsome quarterback-tailback duo of Josh Ehrlich and Tommy Grabowski, who ran for nearly 1,900 yards and 22 touchdowns between them in 2023.

There’s a little more needed in terms of skill to replace on defense – including Landmark Defensive Player of the Year Keith Green III at defensive back – but Perkovich said the River Hawks may have as many as nine starters back on the other side of the ball, as well, giving SU the luxury of a group that should already be in sync, with added the hunger to achieve more.

“Who knows the future, right?” Perkovich said. “But it looks like we’re going to have nine on defense back. We have a really big group coming back from a good team, so the future is pretty bright and exciting for next year.”

All but certain to be heavily favored to repeat as Landmark champion next season, Susquehanna – due to the Division III playoff system awarding nearly all of its bids to league champions as automatic qualifiers – can’t look too far ahead in 2024 just yet, knowing it first must handle conference business, before it can start thinking about a deep playoff run.

But having proven last season that when they play their best, they can beat the best, it’s easy to understand why the River Hawks are dreaming big.

And, after years of near misses, such a moment at Susquehanna would be that much sweeter.

“Seeing our program’s growth, and the consistency of the growth, hopefully is what people look at,” Perkovich said. “It’s not going to get easier for us, but I’m excited about the future, and recruits like to hear it. That’s good, (to) come in here and know those expectations and those goals. 

“I think it will set us up well for the future, but we want more, as everyone in our program will tell you. Even though we went undefeated (in the regular season) and went 10-1, all we’re thinking about is the one (loss).”