Pat Higgins | Asst. Sports Editor
Last week it was three defensive touchdowns in the final four minutes of the first quarter that propelled the Dukes back to .500 in a 27-14 victory that was never really close over West Liberty.
This week’s heroics came much later in the contest.
Locked in a tough matchup against defending NEC champion Wagner, the Dukes exploded for 24 points in the fourth quarter to open conference play with a resounding 34-7 victory at Rooney Field in the annual homecoming game.
After opening the season playing four games spread over the course of six weeks, the Red and Blue played games in consecutive weeks for the first time in the 2013 campaign in their NEC opener.
Coach Jerry Schmitt said the sporadic schedule made it difficult for the team to find an identity with bye weeks in between tough losses to Dayton and Youngstown State in September.
However, the Dukes may have found a groove after back to back home victories to start October.
“I think through that whole six week [stint] with the exhibition games and the off weeks, we didn’t know who we were,” Schmitt said. “We were trying to find our place, we play well for a little bit, we play great at Albany, and we didn’t for a little bit. We didn’t get a win for a little while. I think this kind of just verifies to them all the hard work they’re doing and that we are a pretty good football team, and that we gotta keep moving forward and keep getting better.”
Redshirt freshman Dillon Buechel found sophomore wideout Chris King on a slant route across the middle with a little over seven minutes remaining in the first quarter to give the Red and Blue an early 7-0 lead. This marks the second time in as many weeks the two have connected on scoring patterns.
A 47-yard boot from Duquesne kicker Austin Crimmins and a 15-yard Wagner’s touchdown run up the middle made it 10-7 at the half
A shouting match of sorts broke out as teams herded back to their respective locker rooms, indicative of the bad blood that remained from last year’s matchup in which the Seahawks’ victory earned them the NEC crown.
The second half proved to be a defensive and special teams battle. The defensive unit did their job again this week, holding the Seahawks to 233 yards on the day (141 rushing, 92 passing), while punter Aaron Fleck pinned the opponent inside their own 20-yard line 5 times through the course of the matchup.
The advantage the Dukes built in the field position battle through the third quarter translated to points early in the fourth. After a three and out inside their own red zone, Seahawks punter Matt Misley launched a 55-yard punt from his own 12-yard that gave the Dukes the ball at their own 36. The offense strung together an 11-play, 64-yard drive that resulted in a two-yard touchdown run courtesy of Ryan Ho behind a healthy dose of senior running back Jason Douglas and Buechel’s steady hand under center that gave the Dukes a 17-7 lead with 13:59 remaining in the game.
Crimmins capped the next drive with a 23-yard field goal after Douglas rushed six times for 36 yards that ran a little under four minutes off the clock. The Dukes’ second tailback said they simply won the battle in the trenches late in the game.
“We were just pounding it and pounding it and then we broke free,” Douglas said. “I had a little space to work. That’s what we were banking on all week, and we just stuck to the gameplan. [Wagner] ended up wearing down, getting tired. We were in good shape.”
The defense continued their stingy second half effort, forcing yet another three and out on the next drive. Wagner managed to log four first downs in the second half, three of which came on their first drive of the third quarter.
With 6:38 remaining in the game, junior wide receiver Devin Rahming broke the game wide open when he fielded a 55-yard punt running backwards over his shoulder, found an edge along the Duquesne sideline and returned it 62 yards to the big house to give the Dukes a 27-7 lead and their first punt return touchdown since 1997.
His effort on the day earned him NEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors, totaling 107 yards on six returns.
Schmitt said the return came at just the right time in the game.
“Our special teams guys take great pride in their play. We emphasize it all the time how important it is,” he said. “The punt return was huge. I’ve been talking about it for the last five or six years that we’re too talented of a football team to not have a return, and it came at a great time. When it happened, I took the phones off, and I went and celebrated. We work really hard at it, [and] obviously you gotta get some breaks.”
Senior fullback Ethan Dorsey rumbled around the left side with 1:38 remaining in the game for a 40-yard touchdown to give the Red and Blue a 34-7 lead, adding insult to injury and capping the Dukes’ scoring efforts on the day.
Schmitt said his team would celebrate a vengeful victory over a conference rival in their NEC opener and get back to the grind very quickly, stressing the Dukes need to take their schedule “one at a time.”
“There [are] no easy games in this conference – none,” he said. “It’s just gonna be who keeps getting better, who stays healthy, and who grinds it out, and like this game – who stays tough mentally.”
The Red and Blue will travel across town this weekend to face Robert Morris at 6:00 on Saturday night and try to extend their winning streak to three.