You could say that Joe Walton's Robert Morris Colonials were the exact right team at the exact right time.
In 2010, the champion of the NEC would earn something that no other Northeast Conference champion had ever been allow to attain: an autobid to the FCS playoffs.
And while many national analysts wrote off the Colonials as a team that was a step behind conference powerhouses Albany and Central Connecticut State, folks in Moon Township knew they had a real chance at the conference's first-ever playoff bid. After all, they boasted two of the best players in Robert Morris' short football history: running back Myles Russ and linebacker Alex DiMichele.
By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
The Colonials' talent was never in question - but their consistency most certainly had been.
In 2009 Robert Morris collapsed to an 0-6 start, only to finish the season by winning their last five games, in large part to Walton's anointment of then-sophomore quarterback Jeff Sinclair.
Early on, they gave notice that this would not be the same old Colonials.
And it would be Russ and the Colonial seniors, who would end the season as Robert Morris' all-time leading rusher, that would lead the way.
With 22 seconds left, the senior running back Myles Russ' 12 yard touchdown run would give the Colonials a 30-23 lead over nationally-ranked Liberty at home - and it would be another senior, safety Michael Landers, that would ice the win with an end-zone interception.
The interception kicked off a massive celebration at the 20 yard line, and the win over the "best opponent we've ever faced," according to coach Walton, sent the message to the rest of the NEC that the Colonials were going to be one tough out.
And no team would be able to take down this veteran team with 17 returning starters until they had the conference's first autobid in hand.
"I don't know if four years ago the players who came here thought they would be playing for the conference championship and a playoff spot on senior day," Robert Morris coach Joe Walton said before hosting Central Connecticut State in a contest that would allow his Colonials to clinch the title.
In a game that would be a rushing clinic for the Colonial's senior running back trio of Myles Russ, Raphael Johnson and Josh Kiel, Robert Morris would rack up 335 yards rushing in the 42-24 stomping of the Blue Devils, and give them a share of the regular-season championship and clinch the first-ever playoff game for a school from the NEC.
That the players were able to win their final home game at "The Joe" - the stadium named after Robert Morris' first, current, and only coach, Joe Walton - was an unbelievable feeling to the Colonial seniors.
An anticlimactic loss to Bryant to close out the regular season, allowing Central Connecticut State to share the regular-season NEC championship, but Robert Morris' head-to-head victory over the Blue Devils meant they would be going on the road to face another first-time FCS playoff participant, North Dakota State.
They gave the Bison a run for their money, opening up a 7-6 halftime lead and only trailing 20-17 after a 23 point fourth quarter by the Bison would put them away.
But that loss shouldn't obscure the fact that this history-making team has set a very high bar for the entire NEC in 2011 - and went a long way towards proving that you cannot teams from the NEC lightly.
The big question from Colonials fans has to be: can they get the same results they did a year ago, with the graduation of the leading rusher in school history and so many key defensive players such as linebacker Alex DiMichele and safety Michael Landers?
In 2011, it feels like it's going to be a wide open race.
And it could be that the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils
, who have been perennial contenders for the NEC championship under Jeff McInerney, could be the team on top of the heap.
They lose their leading rusher last year in running back Everette Benjamin and their leading receiver in wideout Josue Paul, but quarterback Gunnar Jesperson (1,918 yards passing, 495 yards rushing, 17 TDs) should ensure that the Blue Devils have an excellent chance to win a thrird straight regular-season NEC title - and this time, compete in the FCS playoffs.
With their spread option attack and a many members of a fine offensive line returning (headlined by lineman Brendan Brackett), it could be speedy running back Nate Pagan (117 yards, 3 TDs) and wideout Deven Baker (215 yards, 1 TD) that emerge as the offensive horses that fire the Blue Devil offense.
On defense, defensive end Charles Williams (47 tackles, 12 tackles for loss including 6 sacks) is sure to be a player that every NEC offense will try to contain, as will linebacker Lorenzo Baker (77 tackles, 2 forced fumbles). Central Connecticut State has a talented, experienced team that is a strong contender for the title.
But it's quite possible that the Albany Great Danes
, coached by the legendary Bob Ford, could also rebound from an injury-riddled 6-5 season to compete for the NEC title.
This year, with the return of a couple injured players, the Danes could be a team to watch in 2011.
They return almost all their powerful, multi-faceted offense from last year, including sophomore quarterback Buddy Leathly (926 all-purpose yards, 6 TDs), running back (and former quarterback) Andrew Smith (1,039 all-purpose yards, 7 TDs),and 2009 NEC rookie of the year running back Dillon Romain (954 all-purpose yards, 6 TDs). The Great Danes' all-purpose attack also boasts the return of their top receiver, wideout Ryan Kirchner (784 all-purpose yards, 2 TDs).
If the defense, led by returning inside linebacker Dave Plungas (71 tackles, 3 tackles for loss) and safety jake Ciccarello (51 tackles, 2 interceptions) can bring together Albany's defense, the Great Danes will be tough to beat.
Another team that could be poised to make a rush for the NEC championship is the Duquesne Dukes
, coached by seventh-year head coach Jerry Schmitt.
Though they will be working with a new offensive coordinator (Gary Dunn, from Morehead State), they also boast the return of their top passer (quarterback Sean Patterson, 2,050 yards passing, 20 TDs), and rusher (running back Larry McCoy, 1,291 yards rushing, 6 TDs). Though tight end Sean Bunevich says good-bye to the Dukes, the return of their entire starting offensive line seems to point to a productive 2011.
If the Dukes can replace a host of seniors in their defensive backfield, they will be serious contenders for the NEC title, with returning players like defensive end Alex Inda (55 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 fumble recovery) and linebacker Serge Kona (64 tackles, 3 forced fumbles). The return of linebacker Chidozie Oparanozie, after missing the 2009 and 2010 season, also adds depth to the Dukes' already-potent front seven.
While the Robert Morris Colonials
will not go quietly into the night, there are so many openings for productive players on both offense and defense that it's a very open question as to whether Robert Morris can repeat. And two of those holes are gigantic: NEC offensive player of the year Myles Russ (1,363 rushing yards, 11 TDs) and NEC defensive player of the year Alex DiMichele (105 tackles, 4 passes defended).
Still, it would be foolish to count out Sinclair, who is 13-5 as a starter and threw for 1,920 yards as a sophomore, and tight end Shadrae King, who was the Colonial's most potent receiving weapon last year and is getting serious looks from NFL scouts. They form a tough combination to stop.
On defense, the Colonials boast the return of defensive end Nolan Nearhoof (49 tackles, 6 tackles for loss including 4 1/2 sacks), but the question is: can head coach Joe Walton have his defense filled with underclassmen gel in time to win back-to-back NEC championships? If they do, they have an excellent chance to repeat.
Head coach Marty Fine's Bryant Bulldogs
, who have one more year to wear the label "transitioning to Division I", are not eligible for the FCS playoffs yet, but they have a strong team boasting the a first-team all-NEC running back returning. Running back Jordan Brown (1,896 all-purpose yards, 18 TDs) rejoins senior quarterback Mike Croce (1,780 yards passing, 13 TDs) to reform the core of last year's potent Bulldog offense.
Add to that an offensive line that returns four starters, and Croce's top target last year, wideout Jordan Harris (502 yards receiving, 2 TDs), and it's sure that we'll be able to expect fireworks on Bryant's offense in 2011.
Defensively, the Bulldogs' strength lies in their secondary, where defensive backs Max Machado and Samad Wagstaff teamed up for eight picks last year. They'll miss dependable Jason Riffe at linebacker in 2011, but defensive end Maduka Nwanekezi (28 tackles, 5 sacks) really came on at the end of 2010 and looks to build on that momentum going into 2011.
With a back-to-basics mantra, Kevin Callahan, head coach of the Monmouth Hawks
, hopes to rise to the upper echelon once again after falling to an extremely disappointing 3-8 record a season ago. Mobile quarterback Kyle Frazier (2,072 yards passing, 9 TDs, 332 yads rushing) is the leading candidate to lead the offense on opening day, while oft-injured senior running back Biliam Sloan El (231 all-purpose yards, 2 TDs) tops the depth chart going into summer training camp.
Defensiviely, however, the Hawks have a player in safety Jose Gumbs (76 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defensed) that could easily end up as NEC Defensive player of the year. Add to that defensive tackle Jimmy Lawson (21 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks), and the Hawks should field a very solid defense in 2011. If the offense comes together, the defense continues to improve and the Hawks fix those "fundamentals", it wouldn't be a shock to see the Hawks competing for the NEC championship as well.
Walt Hameline's Wagner Seahawks
suffered a disappointing 5-6 record in 2010, despite the presence of highly-touted quarterback Nick Doscher. The dynamic quarterback amassed an amazing 2,739 yards of total offense for Wagner as a sophomore, to go with 22 TDs, but his 15 interceptions contributed to a Seahawk slide to finish the season, losing four of their final five games.
Wideout David Crawford (629 yards, 3 TDs) provides a tall, workhorse target for Doscher, and if speedy running back Torian Phillips (250 yards) can rebound from injury last year to become a more productive option out of the backfield, Wagner could have a great offense in 2011. Add to that the ever-present quality in Wagner's kicking units - this year, led by placekicker David Lopez - and the Seahawks seem to be oozing offensive potential.
But Hameline's defense has some major players to replace in defensive backs Stephen Gage and Frantz Placide. They see powerful defensive lineman Julian Stanford return (64 tackles, 7 sacks), but there's a significant number of quality starters lost to graduation. If the Seahawks find the answers to their questions on defense, they could certainly make a run at the title - but if not, they're more likely to lose more shootouts than they win in 2011.
Speaking of teams with big holes to fill, the Sacred Heart Pioneers
wave goodbye to quarterback Dale Fink, the most productive signalcaller in Pioneer history. It won't be easy for head coach Paul Gorham to replace his 8,803 passing yards and 82 career touchdown passes, and it promises to be a rebuilding year in Fairfield. The new signalcaller will have experienced tight end Rich Rossi (704 catches, 5 TDs) and running back Gregory Ibe (453 yards, 2 TDs) to work with.
On defense, defensive lineman Justin Embler (42 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks), linebacker Chris Mandas (88 tackles, 3 sacks) and cornerback Ahmad Covington (41 tackles, 2 interceptions) form a young defensive core that learned a lot in 2010. They'll be asked to carry the team on their shoulders in 2011 as Sacred Heart's offense sees how it does in the NEC title race.
First year head coach Chris Villareal got only one win in his inaugural season at the helm of the St. Francis Red Flash, and it's only going to get harder as he waves goodbye to linebackers Matthew Parker and Scott Lewis, who combined for an eye-popping 261 tackles in 2010 alone.
Following in their footsteps hopes to be linebacker Tyler Gillmen (78 tackles, 1 forced fumble) and safety Jakob DeMedal (63 tackles, 2 interceptions), whom Red Flash fans hope will be the players to build the Red Flash defense into NEC competitors.
On offense, running back Kyle Harbridge (593 yards rushing, 1 TD) and quarterback John Kelly (1,314 passing yards, 13 TDs) are still very young and will be counted on to develop quickly to becoming solid performers.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Central Connecticut State
2. Albany Great Danes
3. Duquesne Dukes
4. Robert Morris Colonials
5. Bryant Bulldogs
6. Monmouth Hawks
7. Wagner Seahawks
8. Sacred Heart Pioneers
9. St. Francis (PA) Red Flash
Offensive Player of the Year:
QB Jeff Sinclair, Robert Morris
Defensive Player of the Year:
DE Charles Williams, Central Connecticut State
Biggest Shoes To Fill
: RB Myles Russ, Robert Morris