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Know Your 2013 Opponents: Central Connecticut State

"With a newly-revamped Arute Field,", I wrote last season, "which will be able to hold upwards of 6,500 fans, Central Connecticut State will be looking to one message on their home opener against the Mountain Hawks September 8th: that they have arrived."

This year, the Blue Devils repay Lehigh the favor, serving as the Mountain Hawks' home opener in the first weekend of their football season on September 7th.

So what can we expect from the Blue Devils this season?


The Blue Devils' last trip to Murray Goodman stadium wasn't exactly a pleasant experience for the Mountain Hawks.  The trip resulted in a 28-21 victory for the Blue Devils back in 2009.

As games go, from the Lehigh perspective, it could have been one of the most disappointing in the era of QB J.B. Clark, though from the Central Connecticut State perspective WR Josue Paul, current CFL and former NFL wideout, had a solid game, and also hauled in the game-winning touchdown in the contest.

At the time, the Blue Devils, under head coach Jeff McInerney, were in the midst of an incredible five-year stretch from 2006-2010.

In that timeframe, CCSU would notch a 38-18 overall record, defeat an iconic FCS program in Georgia Southern, win two NEC championships, and compete in the programs first-ever postseason game, the 2009 "Gridiron Classic" against Butler.

The win over Georgia Southern was especially iconic since McInerney was a student of the triple option under then-Georgia Southern head coach Tim Stowers, and was on Stowers' staff when the Eagles won the I-AA national championship in 1990.  It showed that the NEC's limited-scholarship model didn't make them uncompetitive - despite the scholarship difference, the former coach could still beat his former team.

You could say that game, and to a lesser extent the victory against Lehigh, were probably key exhibits for the late NEC commissioner Brenda Weare when she pitched to the FCS playoff committee that the NEC deserved an autobid to the playoffs.  Ultimately, her pitch was successful, and the NEC and Big South were allowed autobids to the FCS playoffs in 2011.

(Since the NEC received their autobid two years ago, they have been extremely worthy competitors, first with Albany coming within a whisper of beating Stony Brook in 2011, losing 31-28,  and Wagner thoroughly dominating Colgate 31-20 in last season's first-round game.)

But as the NEC has risen in stature in the last two years since CCSU's last trip to Murray Goodman, the Blue Devils have seen a dramatic change in fortune in New Britain with their football team in terms of wins and losses.

Despite some very fine improvements to the Blue Devils' infrastructure - a $3.5 million upgrade to Arute Field, finished last season, doubled seating capacity and will also allow the Blue Devils' field to be used to host high school championships - McInereney's teams combined for six wins in the last two years.

Last year, CCSU gave up 30 points or more in nine of the ten games they played - including one of Lehigh's more resounding wins last season, a dominating 35-14 victory.

In that game, RB Zach Barket, senior RB Keith Sherman and junior RB Rich Sodeke teamed up for 137 yards rushing and 3 TDs, with QB Michael Colvin adding two more touchdowns, a rushing score and a pass to senior TE Max Anderson to cap off the scoring.

“The kids are competing hard," head coach Andy Coen said after the game.  "The defense played very well even though we gave up some plays. Offensively we came in at halftime and really wanted to run the ball in the second half; and we were able to do that so that makes me feel good.”

CCSU had big issues stopping the run against any of their opponents last season.  Their rush defense, giving up 214 yards per game on average, was 107 out of 120 teams in FCS.

Still, the Blue Devils saw the game turn on one key penalty.

After Central Connecticut State responded in their first drive of the second half with a 14 play, 72 yard drive to cut the deficit to 21-7, Lehigh's offense was stopped on 1 yard short of the first down for the second straight drive.

But it would be a gigantic 10 yard holding penalty on the Blue Devils to negate a 19 yard run by RB Nate Pagan, and yet another 3rd down stop by senior LB Nigel Muhammad on the option on 3rd down, that would force CCSU to punt and give Lehigh yet another chance to put things away.

"That play would have given Central a first down at the Lehigh 18 and, as CCSU head coach Jeff McInerney said, 'would have changed the whole dynamic.'" Mike Anthony of the Hartford Courant noted.  "Instead, Central ended up punting, and Lehigh's first play was a 72-yard bomb from QB Michael Colvin to WR Ryan Spadola, setting up a touchdown that pushed the Mountain Hawks' lead to 28-7. That sequence took the air out of Central and knocked the hope out of a crowd of 5,098 that gathered under the rain at newly renovated Arute Field."

*****

In last year's preview, I asked the question: conference-wise where does Central Connecticut State belong?

The Northeast Conference's institutions are mostly private, like Sacred Heart in Fairfield, CT and Wagner in Staten Island, NY, and CCSU, as a small public institution with an enrollment of over 12,000 they're an odd fit in the NEC.

With realignmentaggedon occurring all over college athletics, the NEC was also affected, losing Monmouth in all sports.

Could - would - CCSU think about moving conferences?

With a newly-renovated stadium and a surprisingly good number of very solid football recruits that want to stay local, might the Blue Devils think about joining a football league that offers the full complement of scholarships at the FCS level of 63?

While the days of a football-only Yankee Conference are long past in the Northeast, it's intriguing to think about what could be if you could pluck the public schools from other non-football conferences in the region and plunked them in their own conference.

Schools like New Hampshire (America East), Maine (America East), Stony Brook (America East), Albany (America East), Rhode Island (Atlantic 10), Monmouth (MAAC, Big South for football) and perhaps Villanova (Big East) make for an intriguing core of a conference, essentially siphoning off six football-only members of the CAA and forming a new conference. CCSU fits squarely in the middle of that conference, too, putting it at a stable eight football members.

There's another possibility, too - the Colonial Athletic Association.

The CAA has had a rough couple of years in realignment.  Losing Georgia State, George Mason, VCU, and Old Dominion had many pundits wondering if they would survive realignmentaggedon at all, but they were able to somewhat stop the bleeding by acquiring two more all-sports members in College of Charleston and Elon from the SoCon.

Could CCSU fit into their plans?  Absolutely.

As Old Dominion left the CAA for a future in FBS football, many folks speculated that Delaware or James Madison, two all-sports members, might join them.

If James Madison gets an invitation from Conference USA - something that Old Dominion has been rumored to be lobbying for - where could the CAA turn in regards to football?

They would need an all-sports member to retain some level of control of the football conference, which already consists of a majority of affiliates.  Delaware, James Madison, Towson, William & Mary, and (in 2014) Elon will be the only all-sports members that sponsor football.  Lose another school like James Madison, and control of the whole football league could be in jeopardy.

Would CCSU be a perfect fit in the CAA?  No.  As nice as upgraded Arute field is, it's not the same thing as Tubby Raymond Field in Delaware or Bridgeforth stadium at James Madison, both which can seat more than 20,000 people and are two of the best fan atmospheres in all of FCS.  But if one of those two schools leave, the CAA might not have much of a choice.

There's not a lot of schools that sponsor football that would fit what the CAA might need.  CCSU would, however.

*****

Many of the same Blue Devil names remain from the 2-8 team that played against Lehigh last season.  Unfortunately for Lehigh, one of those players is a preseason all-American.

Junior RB Rob Holloman was named a third team all-American by the Sports Network, and was also named in CFPA's Watch List as an "all-purpose player'.

Last season against Lehigh, the Kent State transfer represented 111 yards of CCSU's 281 total yards on the afternoon, scoring a touchdown as well.  He did have a critical fumble, though.

He notched 1,104 rushing yards on the season, and the slippery 5'8, 170 lb back also added 231 yards receiving and 372 return yards, piling his yardage total to 1,710 all-purpose yards.

CCSU's spring, too, involved a return to fundamentals and - unusually, I think - a scripted Blue/White game.

Central Connecticut’s annual spring game has a different feel than it did just a year ago. Now a nighttime event, the game has also transformed from a party atmosphere intended to keep the program in the minds of fans and provide a fun experience to a more football-centric night. 
With the annual Blue-White scrimmage marking the end of the bulk of the spring practice season, CCSU coach Jeff McInerney liked the way the 2013 version of the game looked. It may be only April, but enough good things happened on Arute Field to convince McInerney his team has turned a corner after a pair of rough seasons.
There were changes to the structure of the game which made it a little harder to find continuity, but McInerney thought there was plenty to build off Friday.
“We’ve worked so hard on base fundamentals,” McInerney said, praising his defense’s tackling in particular. “We scripted every play and I mixed the offensive groups up.”

Senior QB Andrew Clements, who started against Lehigh last season, started for the offense in the spring and seems like good odds to be the starter against the Mountain Hawks again on opening weekend.  While he loses his top target, WR Deven Baker to graduation, in the spring game Clements opened things up with TD passes to two converted defensive backs, senior WR Chris Linares and freshman WR Jevon Elmore, a spring enrollee from USMA Prop.

“I was pleased,” McInerney told the New Britain Herald. “We’re coaching Andrew harder with his detail to assignment. It’s obvious he has talent, but [we’re] getting him to stay on script and on focus, not doing something spectacular but doing what the job entails.”

Defensively, the Blue Devils are trying to break in someone new - a basketball center who used up his hoops eligibility but chose to try to walk on the football team.

Senior DE Joe Efese had a couple of tackles in the spring as he tries to make the playing roster next season.  He'll join two of CCSU's defensive standouts, senior SS Antwoine Reese and junior ILB Patrick Atkinson, who were the two top tacklers on the team last season.

There's never been any question that CCSU is loaded with talent.  The question is: can those pieces come together to have the Blue Devils improve on their 2-8 finish last season?

More importantly for Lehigh fans, though, will they come together enough after a season-opening visit to James Madison to pose a serious threat to the Mountain Hawks?   Without a season-opening game, CCSU is Lehigh's opener, while the Blue Devils will have worked out some major kinks against James Madison, win or lose.  Will it be a factor?

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