NEW BRITAIN - Not many teams would have welcomed a bye week during the middle of a five-game winning streak.
Don’t consider the Central Connecticut State football team one of them.
The Blue Devils saw the bye as an opportunity to get healthy and work on some of their basics in preparation for what will be their most important stretch of the season, as they find themselves in contention for their first Northeast Conference title since 2010.
Still, one week was long enough.
“It feels great to be back getting ready to play,” CCSU head coach Pete Rossomando said. “The guys are excited to be back in game week and get back to playing.”
It won’t be easy, as the Blue Devils (5-3, 3-0) resume conference play this afternoon against St. Francis (PA) (5-3, 3-1), last season’s NEC champion.
The Blue Devils have struggled in November during Rossomando’s tenure, compiling a 2-7 record, including last year’s 31-21 loss to the Red Flash.
But St. Francis comes in looking for what CCSU has - consistency - having alternated between wins and losses since Week 2.
“One place they haven’t been down is their defense,” Rossomando said. “They beat Liberty, which was ranked in the top 25 at the time, and should have beaten Towson, mainly on the strength of their defense.
“They’re pretty solid at every level. I’ve watched all their games and one [thing] that that sticks out to me is how well they play as a unit. They all run to the ball. With the things they do on defense, if we have to drive the football 80-85 yards every drive, we’re going to be in trouble. They don’t give up long drives.”
On the season, the Red Flash are giving up an average of just 12.9 points and 291.6 yards per game to opponents, including holding teams to 16 points or less four times.
Part of their success has to do with their ability to get in the backfield. St. Francis has totaled 48.5 tackles for loss for -177 yards, which has helped the unit intercept 11 passes and force 11 fumbles with 10 recoveries.
It should be a good test for a Blue Devils’ offense that has averaged 41.4 points per game during its winning streak, thanks in part to the success of its rushing attack.
“One thing we can’t do is turn the ball over,” Rossomando said. “They’re not going to give you a short field between their defense and their special teams, which are excellent. That’s one of the things that hurt us last year was turnovers. We have to make sure we keep the game close.”
The Red Flash’s offense, on the other hand, has not been as consistent as their defense. Averaging just 26.8 points per game, St. Francis ranks next to last in the conference in total offense at 317.6 yards per game and in its three losses, has been held to 14 points or less.
Injuries have played a factor. The Red Flash lost their top two running backs in Jymere Jordan-Toney and Avery Milliner, leaving third-string back Joel Dentley as the starter. But Rossomando expects Milliner (60 carries, 216 yards, 2 touchdowns) to be back, joining Dentley (35 carries, 84 yards) this afternoon.
This will also be CCSU’s second game in a row facing a Division I FBS transfer at quarterback in Bear Fenimore. The former University of Houston signal caller has completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 1,697 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.
A key to stopping the passing game will be limiting what Karmon Lewis does. The junior receiver leads the team with 57 catches for 870 yards and six scores. The next closest receiver, Cyrus Holder, has just 240 yards.
“We have to make them one dimensional,” Rossomando said. “When they can run and throw successfully, that’s a recipe for disaster. But I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of doing that of late. We also have to create some turnovers to give the ball back to our offense to give us a short field.”
The Blue Devils will be without starting defensive tackle Chris Tinkham with an upper body injury, meaning Chad Woodfine and James Dumas could see increased snaps in the defensive line rotation.
But no matter where both teams are, Rossomando is expecting the game to be a tough matchup.
“The things they do well, we do well,” Rossomando said. “We just can’t put ourselves in the situations we did against them last year if we want to be successful this week.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @DavidGlovach