‘Next man up’ mentality pushes Colonials past Notre Dame (Ohio)

Zach Laufer, Sports Editor

Sophomore running back Cole Blake did not start any of Robert Morris’ first three games against Dayton, Youngstown St. and Notre Dame (Ohio). In the first two games, Blake carried the ball a total of four times for a total of 19 yards.

That is not a testament to his skill level, however, because it just so happens that one of the most promising, talented workhorses RMU has ever seen is in front of Blake on the depth chart.

“Cole Blake’s a great back,” said redshirt freshman receiver Kyle Buss. “Every week in practice, he makes the best of his opportunities.”

But with his team trailing 24-21 at halftime, and Rameses Owens limping out of the locker room, Blake got his chance.

He took it, and he ran with it.

Accumulating 133 yards on 24 carries in the second half, Blake proved his worth in a big way in the Colonials’ (1-2) 35-24 win over Notre Dame College (1-2).

Even though Owens is the unquestioned workhorse, Blake’s work did not and does not go unnoticed by his coaches and teammates. No one was shocked by his performance because they know he is that good.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” second year head coach John Banaszak said. “Believe me. I knew last year Cole Blake was going to have a game like this. Did not surprise me one bit.”

Blake — a smaller but equally as powerful back as Owens with shifty speed — was able to maneuver through each hole provided by an increasingly confident offensive line.

“(Cole Blake) runs hard, he runs north and south,” Banaszak said. “He doesn’t go down very easily. It’s nice to have him.”

Leading by four in the fourth quarter and starting on its own 1-yard line, RMU looked to Blake to switch the field position and burn some game clock.

Not surprisingly, he delivered. Blake carried the ball four consecutive plays, picking up 39 yards and getting the ball to the 42. Oh, and the clock read 1:37, the Falcons needing to travel 90 yards to win the game.

On the fifth play of the ensuing drive, NDC quarterback Malik Grove’s attempted pass was tipped at the line and intercepted by defensive end Forrest Mason, who walked into the end zone to seal the victory.

Not just a victory, the first victory of the season. And the second of the Banaszak era. After a week of inconsistent practices, the fact that the Colonials still came out with the win made Banaszak all smiles afterward.

“It feels real good,” he said. “We played the best first quarter of football we’ve played in a long time here at Robert Morris. The coaches did a good job settling down at halftime, and then we played a real good second half.”

The promise and hope given off from the first two games finally paid off in the win column, and that was only made possible by a stellar play at the margins (that is, strong play in the opening and closing quarters).

Using special teams blunders by the Falcons and a steady early running game with Owens, the Colonials sprinted to a 21-0 lead half a minute into the second quarter. But much like has happened in the first two games, the RMU defense started to bend, and the offense took its foot off the gas pedal, allowing Notre Dame (Ohio) to scored 24 unanswered points before halftime.

“You can’t yell, you can’t scream,” coach Banaszak said. “You got to get them to get their heads back up. You got to be able to get things under control, and I think we did a good job.”

This message clearly woke Robert Morris up, as it outscored NDC 14-0 in the second half. The defense, led by reigning NEC Defensive Player of the Week, Mike Stojkovic, stood strong in the third quarter, in which the Colonials’ offense simply could not sustain any momentum provided by the defense.

But a rushing touchdown by freshman quarterback Matt Barr (his second of the game) turned out to be the game-winner, giving them their first lead since the first half. There were no contact lens malfunctions on this day, and Barr, despite the meager passing yards, performed quite well. He went 14-of-18 for 134 yards, one interception, and those two vital rushing touchdowns.

Malik Grove, the standout, dual-threat quarterback for the Falcons, put on quite a show for the crowd at Joe Walton Stadium, especially in the second quarter. Overall, Grove finished going 17-of-36 for 248 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Grove was on fire in the second frame, throwing all three of his touchdowns on 7-of-11 passing for 146 yards.

Redshirt junior defensive end Austin Trgovcich, like Blake, was handed an opportunity to play a much larger role for the Colonials, with starting lineman Ryan Lewis limited with an ankle injury. And like Blake, he seized that opportunity.

Trgovcich finished with a team-leading 11 total tackles, and wrecked much unmeasured havoc on the offensive line of NDC. On the game-sealing interception return for a touchdown, he bull rushed the tackle and guard, forcing the quarterback Grove to move to his left, right into the long arms of Mason.

After the game, Blake spoke volumes about the great work of his offensive line giving him holes to run through, and the coaching staff for pushing the right buttons. But most importantly, he mentioned a mentality ingrained in the minds of the Colonials.

Next man up.

“Ram goes down, I was the next man up. If I went down, Dante (Satcher) would be up. It’s just how it goes.”

What Blake and Trgovcich displayed was the talent, confidence and depth of this football team, some things that will certainly be tested next week at currently #8 South Dakota St. (2-0). Robert Morris travels there Sept. 26 for a 6 p.m. kickoff.