Outside the program, expectations for the Central Connecticut State football team coming into the season weren’t especially high. Perhaps the Blue Devils would be able to win more games than they had the year before, when they went 2-9.
After losing its first three games to begin the year, it looked like it might be more of the same for CCSU. But the Blue Devils have responded by winning five straight as they entered their bye week.
Now sitting at 5-3 overall and tied atop the Northeast Conference standings, CCSU has put itself in position to compete for its first NEC title since 2010.
Here are four things we have learned about CCSU coming out of its bye:
1. The Blue Devils can finally run the football
This might be the biggest key to CCSU’s recent success this season. The Blue Devils have proven to be their most effective, both as an offense and as a team, when they are able to run the ball successfully. Cue the five-game win streak.
Although CCSU began the season against three tough teams in Syracuse, Fordham and now No. 19 Youngstown State, the Blue Devils totaled just 274 yards on the ground, averaging 91.3 per game.
In the five games since, CCSU rushed for over 200 in each, totaling 1,185, while producing a 100-yard rusher in each. Cameron Nash went over the century mark in the first four games of the winning streak with Drew Jean-Guillaume rushing for a career-high 126 against Bryant.
This type of offense has taken some of the pressure off quarterback Jacob Dolegala and allowed him to take advantage of the play-action pass for big plays down the field. It has also kept the defense off the field longer and allowed the unit to stay fresh.
The growth of the offensive line has a lot to do with the offense’s progression and with CCSU in contention for its first conference title since 2010, the running game will need to continue to play a big part. Persistence it seems, does pay off.
2. The Blue Devils are still looking for the receiving corps to progress
While CCSU has turned into more of a run-first team, it still looks to its passing game for big-play yardage when the opportunities present themselves.
Dolegala has progressed significantly since he first took over the starting quarterback role full time at the beginning of last season. A go-to receiver in the slot or on the outside would only help elevate what has been a good offense as of late even more.
As a whole, the receiving corps is still young and gaining experience and the Blue Devils tend to spread the football around. Courtney Rush has emerged as a deep threat for CCSU during its recent run. The junior leads the team with 320 yards on 13 catches. He also has two touchdowns.
But the second leading receiver is Jean-Guillaume, who has 290 yards and leads the team in catches (21) and touchdowns (3), which speaks to the tailback’s versatility as well. Redshirt Freshman Xavier Bass is next with 180 yards.
This will be an area to keep an eye on, especially if teams are able to take away the Blue Devils run game moving forward. CCSU has the athletes, they just have to make the most of their opportunities.
3. The defense is at its best when it takes the ball away
Much like the offense, the defense has become more consistent as the season has gone on. Although the unit has given up more points to opponents (33.4) than the Blue Devils’ offense has scored (31.9), the defense has been playing better than those number indicate, especially during the win streak.
During that stretch, opponents are averaging just 20.2 points a game against CCSU with just Wagner, a game that went to four overtimes, scoring more than 21 points.
Having a defensive roster full of veterans, including linebacker Randall Laguerre, safeties Jarrod Cann and Tymir Hinton and defensive lineman Chris Tinkham, helps.
But what has benefitted just as much is the Blue Devils’ affinity for taking the ball away.
On the season, CCSU has come up with 11 interceptions - Cann has four and Hinton three - and forced eight fumbles, six of which it has recovered, allowing the defense to get off the field and give the ball back to the offense.
Defense’s will always give up points, but this unit appears to have a knack for making plays when it needs to the most. Against Bryant, the Blue Devils forced two fumbles in the fourth quarter, including one right before the Bulldogs were set to score.
It will be interesting to see if CCSU will be able to sustain its hallmark trait this season in what will be the final three most important games to round out the year.
4. The most important part of the schedule remains
Speaking of the final weeks, the Blue Devils might have opened the season with some big-time opponents, but none will be as important as these three, all of which will be conference opponents.
It will be these games that determine if CCSU will be able to maintain its place atop the Northeast Conference standings or fall back into the middle of the pack.
Coming out of the bye, CCSU will host St. Francis (PA) (5-3, 3-1) before traveling to Pittsburgh to face Duquesne (7-1, 4-0) and back at home against Robert Morris (2-6, 0-3).
The players made it known the game against Bryant was about respect and redemption within the conference. The next three weeks will most likely be about the same. The Blue Devils lost to all three of these teams last year.
But it will be against Duquesne, a team that has won a share of the NEC title or won it outright in three of the last six year, that will be the toughest. Entering this week, the Dukes average 34.2 points per game and limit opponents to 21.1.
CCSU might have surpassed its win total from the past three years, but it will be these games that will determine if the Blue Devils are actual contenders.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @DavidGlovach