It's time for things to get serious for Central Connecticut football.
CCSU (1-4) is coming off its third straight loss, a 22-20 final to Columbia, and needs to right the ship quickly before falling into the back third of the Northeast Conference standings with still much of conference play to go.
For the Blue Devils it starts on Saturday with getting back on track against Sacred Heart (3-3). The Pioneers will bring a healthy dose of running against the Blue Devils, who have struggled against the pass the last three weeks.
"I think every opponent you play has a different strength. I think these guys are certainly more geared to running the football," said CCSU head coach Ryan McCarthy. "... That's where we're strong, we're strong against the run.
The Pioneers' numbers certainly line up as a run-dominant team, totalling 1,193 yards with a season-high 301 in the season opener against Bucknell. They haven't broken 200 yards passing in a game this season, and have spread the ball around on the ground enough to average 4.5 yards per carry with six scores through eight players.
Part of the rushing attack included Julius Chestnut, who McCarthy called one of the best players in the conference. Chestnut has not played since a 170-yard season opener appearance, and has since been passed by Malik Grant on the depth chart.
Grant, an under-sized player who will hammer in between the tackles, has racked up 705 yards rushing this season and averaged 5.3 yards per carry as the lead back.
Through the air, the Pioneers Marquez McCray's 836 yards passing on a 55.88% completion percentage. The shiftiness of McCray, who also has 108 yards gained (net), makes this week another challenge for the defense where McCarthy is aware the players need to be on their toes and not commit to either the run or pass too early.
"We're a little more vulnerable to the pass and I think that'll help us (being a better run defense)," said McCarthy. "What we're going to do, and we do this every week, our eye discipline needs to be very strong. They're going to run a lot of things where the quarterback has the ability to pull the ball and run it and they bring in another kid. ... It's a zone read where they read the defensive end, or they pull it and they've got a pass component. ... They're going to challenge you to be disciplined in a lot of ways. ... I want to make sure we take away the inside."
McCarthy doesn't believe Sacred Heart is going to commit to a more pass-heavy offense this week, despite its struggles.
"I don't think so, ... I do expect them to come out with a little more, maybe early downs, play action. I just don't think they're going to change entirely for us," said McCarthy. "... I'm more concerned about the quarterback getting outside of the pocket and carrying the ball outside of the tackle box, because if that's the case, that means we bit on the inside run with the triple or double option."
PROTECT THE QB
On the offensive side of things, the Blue Devils were able to put up its best showing since the season opener against Southern Connecticut, passing for 288 yards and racking up 340 yards of offense.
Despite quarterback Romelo Williams getting sacked eight times, the Blue Devils had flashes on offense where they looked good and efficient throwing the ball down field. But, at the same time, McCarthy is expecting the play under center to improve after quarterback and it starts with limiting the sacks allowed to prevent 2nd and long or 3rd and long opportunities.
"We've talked about sacks all week, obviously you give up eight sacks that's a major problem. ... Everything is the quarterback's fault in terms of sacks," said McCarthy. " ... We are always cognizant of being able to change the launch point for the quarterback. We can't just drop back. ... (Sacred Heart) does a good job of mixing personnel, ... we've got to be aware of that."
Romelo is now over 1,000 yards passing, and is currently at 1,050. He's thrown for eight touchdowns with three interceptions on a 55.7% pass completion percentage.
The rushing attack is Nasir Smith's as he leads the team in rushing at 308 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Tyshaun James is the leading receiver by a margin, having caught 22 passes for 247 yards entering Saturday (both are team-high).
A RIVALRY RENEWED
This week brings back the Constitution State Rivalry between CCSU and Sacred Heart football, another in-state rivalry that will send the Blue Devils on the road this time.
The rivalry spans back to October of 1998, with the teams meeting 22 times since then. CCSU holds the all-time head-to-head record at 13-9, and have won four of the last five games, the last coming in 2019 at 28-3.
For McCarthy and his guys the game means a lot to them in terms of who has the upper hand as a program, with the schools being just 50 miles apart.
"It's kind of like Miami, the guys saw the game on the schedule, and they circled it," said McCarthy. "This game, they've circled for a long time. We were one of only 27 teams in the country that didn't play in the spring, and Sacred Heart won the conference championship in the spring. Our guys were sitting back watching and that really added some ammunition to it."
Sacred Heart won the NEC title this spring, its third under head coach Mark Nofri, in a 35-27 overtime win over then-No. 25 Duquesne. The Blue Devils see the reigning champs as the team to beat in its own quest to regain the top spot in the conference.
"I think that brings some added incentive to it," said McCarthy about the Pioneers being defending conference champs. "We have won four of the last five (against them) and they've been good football games. Tough, physical games, and I said to the kids all week that this is going to be a street fight, an all out battle. ... We're going to have to stay ahead and try and keep our defense off the field as much as possible."
Kick from Fairfield's Campus Field will come at 1 p.m. The game will be streamed on NECfrontrow.com. It is the first of six straight conference games for CCSU this season, who is currently 1-0 in conference play.