NEW BRITAIN - Ryan McCarthy acknowledges the Central Connecticut State football team has had it relatively easy when it’s come to its Northeast Conference schedule so far.
The Blue Devils’ first four NEC opponents - Sacred Heart, Bryant, LIU and Wagner - have a combined 5-16 record in conference play and are 8-28 overall with only the Pioneers above the .500 mark. But CCSU’s head coach knows his team can’t control who it plays, it just has to make sure it wins.
“The thing I always tell the kids is we have to take care of ourselves,” McCarthy said.
The No. 17/20th-ranked Blue Devils (8-1, 4-0) have been able to do that so far. Winners of its last five games and off to the program’s best start since 1973, CCSU has won its four NEC games by an average score of 34-8, which includes last week’s win over Wagner to keep the Blue Devils on pace with Duquesne (6-2, 4-0) and Robert Morris (5-4, 4-0) atop the conference standings.
At the same time, McCarthy believes Saturday’s matchup against St. Francis (Pa) will provide CCSU with a good test. The Red Flash are just 4-5 overall and 2-3 in the NEC, but are two plays away from being in the thick of competing for the conference title. They lost to Robert Morris in Week 7, 20-17, in two overtimes. Two weeks later, they lost to Sacred Heart 36-33 in another tough game that went to overtime. St. Francis also played the No. 2 ranked team in the country in James Madison. It lost that game more lopsided at 44-7.
“They’re a tough out,” McCarthy said.
Part of what has made the Red Flash particularly difficult has been their willingness to push the ball down the field with quarterback Jason Brown.
The redshirt sophomore is only completing 58.84 percent of his passes this season, but has 2,114 yards and 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions to show for it, which ranks him second in the conference behind only former St. Paul and current Sacred Heart quarterback Logan Marchi.
Ra'Shaun Henry (59 catches, 720 yards, 5 touchdowns) and EJ Jenkins (22 catches, 507 yards, 8 touchdowns) have been the main beneficiaries and are one of the top receiving duos, if not the top, in the NEC. The two rank in the top 10 in receptions, yards, touchdowns and yards per catch in the NEC, often at the sake of the run game. St. Francis’ leading rusher this season is Chris Wells with 236 yards and two scores on 73 carries (3.2 average).
“Their offensive coordinator, Marco Pecora, was their defensive coordinator the last couple of years,” McCarthy said of the Red Flash offense, which is averaging 21.56 points per game this season. “When he was their defensive coordinator, they always had one of the best defenses in the conference. He knows what defenses like to do and what makes defensive coordinators uncomfortable. That’s what I see. Our guys are going to get their hands on their receivers.”
It’ll help that CCSU has the No. 1 defense in the country. The Blue Devils are allowing just 260.2 yards per game and 4.17 yards per play and rank second in the nation in interceptions. Their 15 is only one less than University of the Incarnate Word. CCSU also hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 14 points since FBS-opponent Eastern Michigan was able to do so on Sept. 21.
“We have to continue to create turnovers,” McCarthy said. “And we’re going to have to make them uncomfortable. We don’t want to give them the time or the separation to throw the ball down the field.”
It will also go a long way if the Blue Devils can keep St. Francis off the field. In order to do that, McCarthy needs his team to be able to run the football better than they have the last two weeks. CCSU ran for 108 yards against winless LIU and followed it up with just 66 yards against 1-win Wagner.
Having Aaron Dawson back should alleviate some of that pressure. After missing the majority of the season with a foot injury, the senior tailback got 11 carries last week. Baring any setbacks, he’ll most likely see his workload increase over the final few weeks of the regular season.
“Having him back was a big emotional boost,” McCarthy said. “He’s able to move the pile, not that our other running backs who have been playing weren’t able to, but he’s a 225-pound kid and when he lowers his pads, it’s different. We just want to make sure we don’t overload him. We want to make sure we ease him back in. He hadn’t played football in eight months. We want to make sure he’s healthy.”
But the Blue Devils’ run game will get another test this week against the Red Flash, who are only giving up 122.1 yards a game. They’ll also have to deal with linebacker Da'Jon Lee, who leads St. Francis in total tackles (63), tackles for loss (15½) and sacks (3). He’s also on the Buck Buchanan Award watch list, which is given annually to the most outstanding defensive player in the FCS. The NEC has never had a player win the award.
“He’s one of the best players not only in the conference, but in the country,” McCarthy said. “St. Francis is multiple in what they do. Certainly more multiple than what we saw last week when Wagner would allow their guys to play all three downs. They play a lot of 1-high in the secondary and have a good safety in Nick Rinella.”
To take advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves, McCarthy knows his team is going to have to continue to be aggressive and unpredictable on the early downs. That’s what has allowed CCSU to separate itself from its opponents this season and was the case last week against Wagner, according to the head coach. That means having quarterback Aaron Winchester, who is on the Walter Payton Award, which is given to the most outstanding offensive player at the FCS level, watch list, continue to play as he has been and making big plays.
Overall, it could shape up to be an interesting and perhaps much-needed matchup for the Blue Devils.
“The big thing is we just have to keep pushing along,” McCarthy said.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org