2023 CAA Football

CAA Notebook: Successful And History-Making Season In The Books

CAA Notebook: Successful And History-Making Season In The Books

Rivalry Week and the final regular-season Saturday of 2021 was, once again, wonderfully normal, with great, emotional games around the conference.

Nov 24, 2021 by Kyle Kensing
CAA Notebook: Successful And History-Making Season In The Books

Nearly 730 days elapsed between installments of the Battle of the Brice-Cowell Musket, the longest hiatus in the Maine-New Hampshire rivalry since a gap from October 1942 to October 1944. 

World War II raged in 1943 between the American victory at Guadalcanal in the winter and the Allied invasion of Sicily in the summer. College football continued in these years, but the sport looked dramatically different than it had even a season prior. 

Not that 1942 was normal; the undefeated New Hampshire Wildcats of that season welcomed a new head coach, Charles Justice, to replace George Sauer. Sauer joined the war effort six months before UNH hosted Maine to open the campaign. 

The lede of the Portsmouth Herald recap of New Hampshire’s 20-7 win in 1942 went so far as to invoke the combat in the European Theatre: 

“Chief clawer for the UNH Wildcats was Tuffy Fitanides, former Thornton academy star, who ripped the Maine line to pieces with his running and kept the Bear backs busy with his accurate passes. The New Hampshire line proved itself Saturday as one of the best small college forward walls in New England as play after play was hurled back from its Stalingrad-like defense.” 

Present-day descriptions of the Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket—or any college football game, really—are less cavalier about invoking the transformative event reshaping the world in real-time. But there are certain words repeated for the last 20 months like “unprecedented,” “historic,” “these difficult times” that future generations will read and understand the context. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most significant events in modern world history. As it had during World War II, the status of college football offered a small reflection of that reality. 

Efforts made to play a truncated season in spring 2021 were admirable, and resoundingly successful in some cases. But the spring '21 New Hampshire Wildcats played just one game before the pandemic forced them to bow out, prior to meeting Maine for the Brice-Cowell Musket. 

Similarly, Maine played only one game in 1943, a 20-6 loss to Phillips Academy. New Hampshire didn’t field a team at all that year, meaning the Wildcats maintained bragging rights for two full years. 

The series endured another layoff between 1944 and the first full, post-war year of 1946, though it was a month shorter than either the ‘42-’44 or ‘19-’21 gaps. 

And every year from 1946 through 2019—amid other wars, economic downturns, and on a much more frivolous scale, the constant evolution of the college football landscape—the rivalry ensued.  

Thus, the wait Maine endured before reclaiming the Brice-Cowell Musket in the 2021 regular-season finale was rather unprecedented, to use one of those keywords of our time. The layoff had to make the payoff at the end that much sweeter, particularly given the last time they met, New Hampshire’s win denied Maine a playoff berth. 

“That’s all I could think about this whole week, just remembering that feeling and not wanting to feel like that ever again,” cornerback Rich Carr told the Press Herald

Rivalry Week and the final regular-season Saturday of 2021 was completely normal, with great, emotional games around the conference. And that normality made this Rivalry Week particularly special. 

James Madison and Villanova will play on into the FCS postseason, but otherwise, every other CAA member put a cap on a fall played without COVID interruption. The successful season is a testament to the dedication and diligence of all 12 programs, that—no matter where they finished in the standings—should go into 2022 feeling like winners. 

Senior Day

Seniors made their mark on Rivalry Week throughout the CAA, especially in two of the weekend’s most consequential matchups. 

In the conference’s longest and South’s Oldest Rivalry, Richmond weathered a late William & Mary comeback effort that included a recovered onside kick. The Spiders retained control of the Capital Cup for the ninth time in 11 seasons, and burst the Tribe’s FCS Playoffs bubble. 

Fifth-year senior Tyler Dressler earned Most Valuable Player for his 11-tackle, two-quarterback hurry performance. Dressler was leader of an outstanding, veteran Richmond defense this season that ended its time together with a bang: 20.5 points allowed over the final, four-game winning streak, three contests holding opponents to 102 rushing yards or fewer. 

At Elon, the regular season didn’t conclude with a rivalry game but it was an opportunity for the Phoenix to spoil a conference counterparts’ postseason plans. And, for a second straight fall season, they obliged. 

Like Towson in 2019, Rhode Island saw its at-large hopes end against Elon. The Phoenix seniors were spectacular in the 43-28 win: 

  • Davis Cheek went 23-of-32 passing for 285 yards. 

  • Cheek’s one touchdown throw went to Kortez Weeks, who caught six balls for 79 yards

  • Jaylan Thomas erupted for his best rushing game of the season with 134 yards and two touchdowns.  

  • Skyler Davis booted five field goals ranging from 32 to 46 yards.  

“Real proud to send our seniors out this way, for them as winners,” Phoenix coach Tony Trisciani said in his postgame press conference. “

Future Shock

As excellent as CAA seniors were to close the regular season, the future of the conference showed out in the final weekend, as well. Commit the names of the freshmen who made a splash in Rivalry Week to memory for next fall: 

  • Stony Brook running back Roland Dempster rushed for 160 yards on just 19 carries and linebacker Tyler King made six tackles with 1.5 for loss to help the Seawolves to their second straight win in the Empire Clash. 

  • Wide receiver Jasiah Williams caught a touchdown pass in Richmond’s Capital Cup victory. 

  • Running back Freddie Brock rushed for 76 yards on 12 carries and scored a touchdown to help Maine reclaim the Brice-Cowell Musket.

  • Josiah Silver made 12 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks, and forced a fumble against Maine. The New Hampshire defensive end capped one of the best freshman seasons of any players in the nation with a fitting flourish. 

  • Antwane Wells Jr. caught nine passes for 107 yards with three touchdowns as James Madison thumped Towson, 56-10, finalizing its co-CAA championship season emphatically. 

  • Elon defensive back Dylan Tucker broke up a pass and returned a fumble 43 yards against Rhode Island. 

The outstanding play of so many freshmen around the CAA to end the 2021 season sets the foundation for 2022. As some of the conference’s stars prepare for whatever comes next, a new batch of stars stand ready to fill in. 

Awards Watch

The conclusion of the regular season brings award season, and seven from the Colonial are in the mix for national honors. 

Quarterbacks Cheek and James Madison’s Cole Johnson are finalists for the Walter Payton Award, William & Mary’s Nate Lynn and Villanova’s Forrest Rhyne are up for the Buck Buchanan Award, while New Hampshire’s Silver and Stony Brook’s King are finalists for the Jerry Rice Award. 

Villanova coach Mark Ferrante is a nominee for the Eddie Robinson Award after leading the Wildcats to the CAA championship. The league crown is the first of Ferrante’s tenure as head coach, and Villanova’s first since the great Andy Talley won the last of his in 2012. 

The CAA crown propelled Villanova to the No. 5 seed in the FCS Playoffs, a favorable spot as the Wildcats pursue the ultimate award in college football: the national championship.