Worcester, MA --- Ernie Mello (Wilmington, MA) rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns and the WPI defense forced five turnovers as the hosts held off a furious fourth quarter rally to defeat Rensselaer 34-31 in the annual Transit Trophy rivalry game between the two schools. WPI levels its record at 2-2 and opens Liberty League play at 1-0 while RPI dips to 1-2 overall and 0-1 in conference play.
Coupled with last year's 24-10 win in Troy, Worcester's Engineers have now won consecutive games in the series for the first time since 1995 and 1996, while RPI leads the all-time series 55-45-5.
WPI scored on the opening drive of the game as Mello snuck in from a yard out after he and quarterback Johny Antonopoulos (Cambridge, MA) posted long runs of 35 and 32 yards respectively. RPI answered right back, aided by a roughing the kicker call on a punt, to tie the score at 7-7 when quarterback Mike Hermann (Hardeeville, SC) tallied the first of his three rushing touchdowns when he scampered in from six yards out.
The hosts rattled off the next four scores to open up a seemingly insurmountable 34-7 advantage. Mello sandwiched touchdown runs of 1 and 19 yards around the end of the first quarter and start of the second and Antonopoulos found Trevor Dunne (Cedar Knolls, NJ) on a five-yard touchdown strike just 17 seconds before intermission to enter the locker room with a 27-7 lead. After a Hussein Yatim (Shrewsbury, MA) interception on RPI's opening drive in the second half, Mello waltzed in from 26 yards out to push the lead to 27 points just 4:57 into the third quarter.
RPI began its comeback late in the third quarter, embarking on a 12-play 43-yard drive that found the end zone 29 seconds into the fourth when Hermann plunged in from a yard out. After the teams traded punts, WPI was in great position to put the game away following a 41-yard punt return from Matt Cyr (Dracut, MA) but a fumble deep in RPI territory helped the visitors begin a 13-play drive that covered 95 yards culminating in a 3-yard Hermann scoring run that sliced the WPI lead to 34-21.
Andrew Franks (Carmel, CA) booted that ensuing kickoff into the end zone for a touchback that eventually led to a safety when Chazz Pillam (Chandler, AZ) tackled the WPI punter in the end zone following an errant snap. RPI took the ball following the free kick and drew closer when Hermann found Austin Caswell (Round Rock, TX) in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard pass with 2:57 remaining. The duo connected again on the two-point conversion to draw the visiting Engineers to within 3 at 34-31.
Manny Cambra (Bethel, CT) recovered an onside kick for WPI and Mello put the game away with a seven-yard run on 3rd-and-4 to ensure the Transit Trophy would remain in Worcester.
John Perron (Worcester, MA) led the defensive charge for WPI. The senior captain registered a pair of interceptions, recovered and shared in a tackle-for-loss while racking up five tackles. William Alves (West Warrick, RI) paced the Engineers with eight tackles to go along with a pass break up. Shaine Grogan (Peru, MA) added seven tackles, including a sack.
RPI's Zac Borrelli (Methuen, MA) notched a game-best nine tackles and forced and recovered the fourth quarter fumble. Zach Scruggs (Auburn, GA) and Matthew Day (Claremont, NH) both chipped in with eight tackles for the guests while Ted Abriel (Slingerlands, NY) recorded RPI's lone sack of the day.
Mello took home the Robert Pritchard Award as the Most Outstanding Back while Joe Everett (Columbia, CT) won as the Most Outstanding Lineman. Mello's 166 yards and four scores on 32 carries were both career highs while Everett tallied five tackles and forced a fumble.
Antonopoulos ended up with 62 yards on the ground and 41 yards through the air. Nick Bean (Middleboro, MA) hauled in three of WPI's six receptions for 31 yards.
Hermann had an outstanding day for RPI. The junior signal-caller completed 23-of-36 passes for 230 yards and added 69 yards on the ground, including three scores. Steven Burpoe (Saranac Lake, NY) caught eight passes for 81 yards while Caswell nabbed seven catches for 41 yards and the touchdown.
Both teams continue their Liberty League schedule next Saturday at 1pm. WPI is at Union while RPI entertains Rochester.