NEW BRITAIN - As the clock ticked down to 00:00 on Saturday afternoon, the cheers rang out from the crowd at Arute Field. It didn’t take long for the Central Connecticut State football players follow suit.
For the first time in a long time, there was something to be excited about, a sense of optimism, midway through the season. And as the players and coaches said afterward, it appears to just be starting.
The Blue Devils’ 42-21 victory over Penn (2-2) on Saturday perhaps demonstrated as much.
When James Dumas recorded the final tackle to officially end the game, CCSU (3-3, 1-0) came away with its third consecutive win - its longest winning streak since the 2010 season, when the program won five straight.
That team went on to finish the year 8-3 and claim a share of the Northeast Conference championship. While this year’s Blue Devils aren’t looking that far ahead just yet, they have their expectations and goals set high with five games - all conference ones - remaining on the schedule.
“We’re trying to win out and there’s no reason why we can’t,” said CCSU quarterback Jacob Dolegala, who completed 19 of his 24 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown on his 21st birthday.
It’s a stark contrast to last year, when there were times the Blue Devils found themselves in games late, but either couldn’t find a way to seal the win or muster enough for a comeback. The result was five losses by 10 points or less and a 2-9 season.
So far, outside of the Fordham game in Week 2, CCSU hasn’t put itself in those situations this season, particularly recently. Since those early losses to ACC opponent Syracuse, the Rams and then now-ranked No. 3 Youngstown State, the Blue Devils haven’t given opponents much of a chance to be in the game.
Over the last three weeks, CCSU has outscored Walsh, Sacred Heart and Penn by a combined score of 125-42, allowing the Blue Devils to surpass their win total from last season. As a result, CCSU appears to be playing looser and more confidently on the field.
In addition to scoring its second-highest point total this year, the defense came away with another three turnovers.
“We feel kind of confident,” said Blue Devils safety Najae Brown, who returned an interception 79 yards for a touchdown. “We knew those first three games were kind of tough and they prepared us for the rest of our games.
“Those first three games taught us we have to stick together. Things might get tough, but we still have to stick together as a team and as one. We couldn’t get down after those first three game because it’s a long season. We knew once we put those games behind us, it’s the start of a new season.”
On Saturday, CCSU outgained the Quakers 473 yards of total offense to 356, including 246 to 93 over the final 30 minutes of play, and featured the balanced offense head coach Pete Rossomando has been looking for since he came to New Britain once again.
For much of his time as the starting quarterback, the onus - good or bad - for the offense has been put on Dolegala as the offensive line continued to jell. But over the last three weeks, the offense has shifted to more of a run-first approach. In all three wins, Cameron Nash has rushed for more than 100 yards, while Dolegala has thrown the ball fewer than 25 times in each.
And that’s just OK with the signal caller, who was more than excited when talking about the unit’s success of late.
“It’s great,” he said. “Not having to be one dimensional is awesome. It’s nice. It just opens so much more up, honestly. It’s great to be able to run the ball and then dink and dunk and then throw the ball over the top when you need to.”
And the Blue Devils will need to. While CCSU rounded out its non-conference schedule on a strong note with two wins, its real test will be those final five NEC games against Wagner, Bryant, St. Francis (PA), Duquesne and Robert Morris, all teams the Blue Devils lost to a season ago.
The win Saturday was a good one, an important one, but the players were quick to point out the focus had to turn quickly to the upcoming game against a Wagner team they haven’t beaten in three years.
“I know we have a whole lot of work to do,” Rossomando said. “We’re not playing our best defense. Communication in the back end is not great right now. It’s got to get better, but our kids are playing hard.”
Still, it’s hard not to note this year could be quite different. It has been already.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or email@example.com On Twitter: @DavidGlovach