NEW BRITAIN - As the Central Connecticut State football team wrapped up another afternoon practice, cheers began to ring out amongst the players.
After all, there was plenty to be excited about heading into tonight’s matchup against MAC opponent Ball State. For the first time in a long time, the Blue Devils are the team everyone in the Northeast Conference is trying to beat.
“The difference between this year and past years is in the past, guys were tired of losing,” senior linebacker Kenneth Keen said. “This year, guys know they’re coming to a championship team, but they now they’re not the 2018 champions [yet]. Hopefully we get there with a lot of hard work and talent. This season, it’s about being excellent. We wanna be the best team in the conference.”
The preseason polls have CCSU as the favorite to repeat as conference champions and with good reason. The Blue Devils are coming off their first NEC title since 2010 and just their fourth winning season over the past decade after going 8-4 and 6-0 in conference play in 2017. Along the way, CCSU went on an eight-game winning streak and reached its first-ever FCS playoff game. The team also returns a majority of starters, especially on offense, which should help.
It’s a far different feel from head coach Pete Rossomando’s first three seasons when the Blue Devils went just 9-25. It’s also part of the reason why none of the veteran players or the coaching staff are getting too far ahead of themselves.
“We’re still chasing [everyone]. We’re chasing the trophy,” Rossomando said. “We haven’t won a game, so I’ve never understood how they can say you’re going to be the champ of the league when you haven’t played a game get. We’re like everyone else. We’re trying to figure things out and put a good team together. We have a pretty good offense and pretty good defensive front. Some of the guys that were in backup roles are going to have to step up and replace the guys who left. That’s every team that’s ever won a conference championship. No one returns the exact same team, not even in the NFL.”
Many of CCSU’s new starters will get a test against the Cardinals, making it the second year in a row the program will play a Division I FBS opponent. Last year, the Blue Devils traveled to Syracuse and left with a 50-7 loss.
Ball State is quite different and finished out its 2017 campaign just 2-10, including nine straight losses. The Cardinals also lost a close game in its season opener that year to Illinois 24-21 with its two wins coming in back-to-back weeks against University of Alabama-Birmingham and FCS opponent Tennessee Tech.
Over those 12 games, Ball State averaged 17.9 points per game. CCSU, meanwhile, allowed just over 26.
“They mix it up [offensively],” junior safety Tajik Bagley, who recorded 42 tackles and two inceptions last season. “They have a lot of athletes. They get 85 scholarships, which comes into play. Whatever they come out in, we have to be ready to adjust to it. They put their pants on the same way we do.”
But the Cardinals also had a number of injuries that affected some of their offensive production with seven of the 11 starters missing a combined 66 games. Ball State lost running back James Gilbert three games into the season due to a hand injury. He rushed for 207 yards and three touchdowns after running for 1,332 yards and 12 scores in 2016. That allowed Caleb Huntley to emerge a go-to back after he ran for 1,022 yards in 12 games with seven starts last year.
The quarterback position was a bit more in flux in 2017 for the Cardinals with four different players getting at least one start. Riley Neal will get the start tonight. He started three games last year, completing 67.7 percent of his throws for 659 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Neal also has his top two targets returning in sophomore Justin Hall (78 catches, 801 yards, 3 TDs) and redshirt junior Riley Miller (30 catches, 300 yards, 1 TD).
Despite playing another FBS opponent, the Blue Devils are confident heading into tonight. A win would set the tone for the rest of the season and having played Syracuse, which plays in the ACC, the year before, also helps. More importantly, CCSU believes it has the players to do so, even with the players it has to replace.
Linebackers Randall Laguerre and Seth Manzanares and defensive backs Jarrod Cann, Najae Brown and Carlton Nash highlight the losses on defense. Running back Cameron Nash, the team’s leading rush, is the only key spot to have to be replaced on the offensive side of the ball.
At the same time, the Blue Devils still have a number of veterans to rely on on both sides of the ball. Keen, Bagley, safety Tymir Hinton and defensive tackle Chris Tinkham anchor a defense that led the NEC in takeaways last year. Keen had 85 tackles, 9.5 for loss. Hinton finished sixth on the team in tackles with 67 and picked off three passes.
Junior Drew Jean-Guillaume is now the features tailback after rushing for 550 yards and six touchdowns on 99 carries as Nash’s primary backup. Jean-Guillaume also caught 34 passes for 375 yards and four more scores.
The biggest part of the offense will be quarterback Jacob Dolegala, who is now entering his third year as the team’s full-time starter. The senior went through some adversity on and off the field in 2017. He completed 52.9 percent of his passes for 1,953 yards, with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also ran for 212 yards and four touchdowns on 52 carries before being suspended for the program’s playoff game against New Hampshire.
Rossomando, however, said the program is behind the quarterback and Dolegala has continued to grow the mental part of his game throughout the offseason.
“I feel really good right now,” Dolegala said. “Technique wise, I feel pretty good there. It’s all about getting faster with my reads and trying to get quicker with my checkdowns and know the opposing defense to a tee to get my guys in the best positions possible.”
Dolegala also has the majority of his offensive line as well as his top four receivers in Courtney Rush, Jean-Guillaume, Jose Garcia and Xavier Bass returning. Rush racked up 547 yards (22.8 per catch average) and five touchdowns on 24 receptions.
The Blue Devils believe they have a lot of be enthusiastic about heading into a new season in order to continue to make sure the program heads in the right direction. They just have to make sure they play a sound game against Ball State.
“We understand this is a great way to gauge ourselves and awesome competition to go against,” Tinkham said. “We just have to treat it like another game and make sure everyone does their assignments.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org