Victory slips away from Colonials under the lights

Zach Laufer, Sports Editor

For the second time in the first three weeks of Northeast Conference play, the Robert Morris Colonials (2-5, 1-2) failed to score 10 or more points in a game.  And despite the fact that RMU’s defense has held its first three NEC opponents to a mere 16 points per game, the team’s conference record now reads 1-2.

In a game filled with failed third down conversions, three-and-outs, and stingy defense, the Duquesne Dukes (5-3, 2-1) outlasted Robert Morris, 16-7.

Although, it could have been much, much worse.

Sure, it was cold. Sure, it was raining. Sure, it was windy. But that does not explain the amount of dropped passes in this contest. Between both quarterbacks, there were 36 incompletions on only 59 attempts.

Nearly half of those incomplete passes could be classified as bona fide drops, and Duquesne quarterback Dillon Buechel suffered the majority of them, particularly in the first half.

Had a few of these drops been caught, the score might have been far more lopsided.

RMU head coach John Banaszak admitted that the weather had some effect on the outcome, but he most certainly did not offer that as an excuse. “(The weather played) probably a little bit (of a factor), but we’ve played in this weather,” he said. “We’ve practiced in this weather. You got to be able to do those things.”

As stated before, it at least appeared to have a significant effect on the quarterbacks.

Robert Morris freshman Matt Barr made his fifth start of this season, his first since suffering an injury to his left arm against South Dakota St. Early on, he looked fresh and confident, connecting on his first three passes during the Colonials opening drive. From that point forward, however, Barr went an abysmal 4-of-26 with no touchdowns and two interceptions, including the game sealer in the fourth quarter.

Buechel had the brunt of his struggles in the first half, where the Dukes were held to just six points. However, he turned it around in the second half, going 6-of-10 for 63 yards and the team’s lone touchdown. Buechel accumulated more yards in the first half (104), but the fourth-quarter score was the dagger.

Sophomore running back Rafiq Douglas carried the load offensively for Duquesne in this game, racking up 172 rushing yards on 32 carries and 31 yards receiving on four catches. When time was winding down late in the fourth, the Dukes pounded the ball inside with Douglas to burn clock, and it was quite effective.

One bright spot for the Colonials was sophomore running back Cole Blake.

With workhorse tailback Rameses Owens returning to the starting lineup, it was not anticipated for Blake to have the kind of performance he had. Blake amassed 117 yards on the ground on 22 carries, and now this secret weapon is slowly beginning to make his mark.

“Today was a good day for (Blake),” coach Banaszak said. “He runs hard. He’s a typical very good Northeast Conference running back. We’re really glad he’s here.”

However, Blake was not ready to pat himself on the back just yet.

“No, because it’s not winning us games,” Blake said when asked if he was proud of his personal strides thus far. “I don’t care if it’s me in, or if it’s Ram (Owens) in, or if it’s (Dante) Satcher in. I just wanna win. So if it takes me to run once, or if it takes me to run a hundred times, if that’s what’s gonna get us the win, I’m fine with it.”

Owens did start the game, but the potent run defense of the Dukes did a nice job of neutralizing his combination of power and quickness by stacking the box with eight to ensure that Owens could not accelerate enough to get past the first level of defense.

He finished with 23 yards on 10 carries. Although, Owens did muster the struggling RMU offense’s only score of the evening, a five-yard rush off the right tackle.

Crucial mistakes made by every group of Robert Morris truly cost the team an opportunity to sit atop the NEC standings. Yet again, the Colonials were on the losing end of the turnover battle, giving up two to Duquesne’s one in the game.

Both RMU turnovers came at the arm of Barr, the former off an unbalanced, under-thrown deep ball to Kyle Buss, and the latter off a poor read of the middle linebacker coverage late in the fourth quarter.

Freshman punter Adam Check did his best Blake O’Neill impression in his own end zone early in the second quarter. Thankfully, Check’s punt attempt was only partially blocked, which led to the match-up’s first points: a 29-yard field goal from Dukes junior kicker Austin Crimmins.

Robert Morris would then convert their touchdown courtesy of Owens, ultimately limping into the locker room with a 7-6 halftime lead.

The final two frames told a different story.

It remained a defensive struggle for the game’s entirety, but the Colonials’ inability to keep up the pace offensively again put the defense in a bad situation. Each time prior, the defense, led by coordinator Scott Farison, would rise up and keep the team within reach.

This week was no exception. Aside from one blown assignment on Buechel’s touchdown pass and a few big gains, Farison’s squad was as stifling as it has been all year.

Even this defense, as injury ridden and banged up as it is, only surrendered 10 points in the second half and forced one turnover. And it definitely does not go unnoticed.

“It’s outstanding,” said coach Banaszak. “No question about it that we’re very good up front on defense. We gave up a couple big plays. That happens in every game. Especially against a team like Duquesne, you can’t expect them to not get anything.”

Offensive coordinator Darrin Hicks, Barr, and this offense certainly has much to improve upon in the coming weeks of conference play.

“We need to be more consistent than we were (offensively),” said Banaszak. “We did some good things offensively; we blocked, we ran hard. We didn’t throw the ball very well. Those are things that we’re gonna continue to work on.”

Robert Morris travels next to New Britain, Conn. to take on Central Connecticut St. (3-5, 2-1), who most recently upset Sacred Heart on the road. The conference match-up is set for Oct. 31 at noon.