NEW BRITAIN - Minutes after the Central Connecticut State had retreated back into its locker room to escape the wind and the cold that had descended upon Arute Field late Saturday, the Blue Devils rushed back out.
There were Northeast Conference champion t-shirts to put on and a trophy to receive after the 49-28 victory over Robert Morris had secured CCSU’s second FCS playoff appearance in three seasons.
But in between getting the t-shirts and the trophy presentation, a time span of 10 minutes, Aaron Winchester was in the middle of telling a story.
The No. 18 Blue Devils (10-1, 6-0) knew what was at stake when they faced the Colonials (6-5, 5-1). Both teams were tied atop of the NEC standings and a win mostly likely meant a trip to the playoffs. A loss meant the season was all but over after the season finale next week without some help. But a little motivation never hurt either.
That came from Tyshaun James and a video the wide receiver had sent the other team captains earlier in the week.
“It was when Duquesne came to our field and beat us for the NEC championship [last season],” Winchester said. “It was like, man, all that work that we put in in the summer and spring and stuff like that and to take what you strive for away from us, that really stuck with me all week.”
That game was CCSU’s season finale last year and the Blue Devils needed a win to at least clinch a share of what would have been their second straight conference title. What would have been.
With 24 seconds left in the game, Nehari Crawford shed off a D.J. Exilhomme tackle and raced up the CCSU sideline for a 56-yard touchdown to break a 31-31 tie. The Dukes’ season continued. The Blue Devils’ did not.
So the captains disseminated the clip to the other players on the team and during CCSU’s movie night on Friday, they put it up on the screen to show the team again before trying to relax with the game less than 24 hours away. It didn’t go unnoticed.
“The room was silent when we showed it,” Winchester said. “I looked around and said it’s not happening this year. Everyone bought in and we knew it wasn’t going to happen again. It was something about that video and not wanting to feel the same way as last year, it played a big part [Saturday].”
All the Blue Devils did was dominate almost every category - offensively and defensively - of the game. And they did it using the formula that had served them well throughout most of the season: lean on a power run game and a ballhawking defense to wear opponents out.
Running the football effectively hadn’t been an easy task for CCSU the past three weeks. The Blue Devils had rushed for 130 yards or less in each contest. Injuries played a part, and so did penalties. But it was a much different story against Robert Morris. CCSU rushed for 389 yards and five touchdowns, and dominated the time of possession 41 minutes to 19.
It resulted in three different Blue Devils running for at least 90 yards. Danley Exilhomme ran for 185 yards on 26 carries. Winchester finished the game with 91 yards and four touchdowns - a 2- and 10-yard run in the second quarter, a 2-yard run in the third quarter that broke a 14-14 tie and a 1-yard run in the fourth - on the ground to go along with his 111 yards and touchdown through the air. Enyce Walker had 90 yards, including a 12-yard fourth-quarter touchdown, on 10 touches.
The Colonials simply couldn’t stop it and after Winchester’s third rushing touchdown, CCSU never trailed again.
“We got some guys back [along the offensive line],” said Blue Devils head coach Ryan McCarthy, whose team set a new program record for wins in a season. The previous record was nine victories set in 1973 and 2009. “[Left guard] JJ Colimon was back, [left tackle] Connor Mignone was healthy so we played with the same [starting] five we started the season with. That’s been a little bit of mixing and matching every week so that continuity helps. We felt like we’d be able to move them around. If you’re going to win games in November, you’re going to have to be able to run the football.”
You’re also going to have to play good defense and take the ball away.
CCSU has done that throughout the season. The Blue Devils entered the matchup leading the nation in total defense, second in interceptions and defensive touchdowns and sixth in turnover margin. They also began Saturday as the NEC’s best scoring defense and the best against the run.
The defensive unit only added to those stats against Robert Morris. CCSU took the ball away four times, including three interceptions, and held the Colonials to 249 yards of total offense, with just 56 coming on the ground.
The Blue Devils now have 18 interceptions as a team this season and have forced 26 turnovers. They also still sit atop the FCS in total defense by allowing 274.1 yards per game, tied with No. 1 North Dakota State.
“We’re just never satisfied,” cornerback Dexter Lawson Jr. said of the defense’s mentality. “We’re always on each other to be at our best each and every week. Even if it’s missing a run assignment in practice or dropping a pick in practice, we’re on each other to be at our best because we know every play matters at some point in a game. It’s about being great.”
More importantly, all four of the times the Blue Devils took the ball away, it led to points - 28 to be exact.
Jahil Brown’s interception at the beginning of the third quarter led to Winchester’s go-ahead touchdown run. Lawson’s first interception led to James’ 20-yard touchdown catch to make it 28-14. Brown made it 35-14 less than a minute and a half after that when he returned an Alijah Jackson fumble 25 yards. Lawson’s second interception of the day led to Winchester’s fourth-quarter touchdown to make it 42-14.
“We watched a lot of film and we knew everything they were doing,” Brown said. “But everybody plays together and plays as a group. If someone messes up, we get on them and then it’s on to the next play.”
Now, the Blue Devils will get a chance extended their new program record for wins to 11 next week. It won’t have quite the same level of importance as the past two when the NEC title was on the line, but don’t tell that to the players.
“There’s a little extra playing Duquesne from what they did to us last year,” Winchester said. “So there’s a little extra to playing those guys. They’re a good team and we’re excited. But we’re not looking ahead to anything else other than what we got next.”
CCSU has video evidence of that.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org