As season openers go, J.R. Bennion will take this one.
No, the Southern Tier Diesel was hardly at its best Saturday night. But the semi-pro football team rallied to score a go-ahead touchdown with 1:45 remaining and used a four-down stop to beat the visiting WNY Dragons, 21-20, at Bradner Stadium.
Rich Butterbaugh, a Diesel newcomer from Bradford, scored his second rushing touchdown of the day, cutting the Dragons’ lead to 20-19 on a seven-yard score. Returning starting quarterback Zach Smith, also of Bradford, took a keeper around the end for the winning two-point conversion.
Roger Wangelan recorded a sack and Jason Kaszynski deflected a pass on the Dragons’ ensuing drive.
“I’m happy we got the win, but we need some work,” Bennion, the Diesel coach said. “The first half, on both sides of the ball, was just sloppy ugly. We’re not holding blocks, sustaining blocks, (we had) missed tackles, dropped passes. You name it, it happened. They had to get settled in there.”
The Dragons (0-2) played a preseason game and a Week 1 game in the Northeastean Football Alliance, while the Diesel sat with a bye. Bennion estimated newcomers comprise 40 percent of his roster after an 8-4 campaign in 2013.
“The second half was much better,” Bennion said. “When it counted, absolutely tremendous. That fourth-quarter stand sealed the victory and they couldn’t have played it any better.”
The challenge now, for Bennion, will be channeling those positives on a more consistent basis.
“If we can play four quarters of that period, we’ll be just fine,” he said. “The truth is if you graded our best plays and our worst plays, we’d give our worst plays an ‘F,’ and we put our best plays down as an ‘A.’ We need to make sure our worst plays aren’t down at an ‘F.’
“Your good plays need to out-number your bad plays, but your bad plays can’t be so bad.”
The game produced an even turnover battle, with zero.
Running back Fred Knight, a six-year Diesel member, started ahead of Butterbaugh, but Bennion said the latter will likely see an increasing role in his offense.
“Rich came to us late because he goes to college out of town,” Bennion said. “But I expect big things out of Rich Butterbaugh. He runs the ball hard. He doesn’t like East-and-West. Richie likes North and South and he’d prefer you get in his way so he can run you over.”
Smith scored the Diesel’s first touchdown on a five-yard first-quarter run. Butterbaugh scored from four yards out in the second.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be a run-oriented team, but it shows that we can do it,” Bennion said. “Zach can run the football. He can take it out of the pocket and he makes me a little bit nervous because he has the mentality that he doesn’t like to avoid contact either.”
The Diesel continues its opening home stand against Lyndonville June 14 and Nickel City June 21, with both games at 7 p.m. at Bradner Stadium.