Pat Higgins | Asst. Sports Editor
In what’s becoming an emerging theme for the Dukes this season, the defense came up big again this weekend, this time a ways down I-376.
Facing Robert Morris in their second game of their crucial NEC schedule after beating up on Wagner last week, the Dukes spoiled the Colonials’ homecoming day with a 21-20 victory Saturday night, improving to 4-2 on the season (2-0 NEC).
Colonials kicker Hunter Khaleghi missed a point after attempt with 4:43 left that allowed the Red and Blue to escape with their first road win against RMU since 2006.
“It’s tough to come out here and win in Moon Township,” said coach Jerry Schmitt. “This rivalry adds to the difficulty for both teams and we were fortunate to come out with a win. It’s a huge win for us.”
Down 7-0 at half, the Dukes scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter by way of two safeties, an Austin Crimmins field goal and a pair of Dillon Buechel touchdown passes to senior wideout Gianni Carter and sophomore Devin Rahming.
The action halted with a little over a minute remaining in the third quarter after Devin Rahming took a bubble screen to Buechel’s left 26 yards to the right pylon for a score to give the Dukes a 20-7 lead. Senior running back Jason Douglas led Rahming to the goal line and threw an enormous block near the goal line that left Robert Morris safety Andy Smigiera motionless on the turf. Replays showed helmet to helmet contact – there was no penalty on the play.
Flag or no flag, Smigiera didn’t see it coming. EMTs put him on a stretcher and transported him to the nearest hospital in an ambulance, but not before he gave a thumbs up to the crowd near the end of a twenty-minute stoppage.
The Dukes had all the momentum to that point after posting 21 points in a nine minute stretch in the quarter. The defense forced a safety, fumble, punt and safety in a battle of field position on the first four drives of the second half.
Junior punter Aaron Fleck earned NEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for dropping three of seven punts inside the RMU 20, something he’s been doing all season. His precision was especially crucial in the third quarter. He pinned the Colonials inside their own 10-yard line on his first two punts of the second half – a frenzied defensive effort on both ensuing drives forced two safeties: the first on a blocked punt and the second forced fumble in RMU’s end zone.
But Colonials quarterback Paul Jones, a Penn State transfer, led a comeback attempt in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. He led a seven play, 71-yard drive that ended in a 1-yard touchdown run with 11:45 remaining, and later found receiver Duane Mitchell near the goal line after a Dillon Buechel interception gave Robert Morris possession at the Duquesne 35. Jones later scored on a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line with 4:43 left in the game.
A missed extra point on the following play made it 21-20.
When the offense couldn’t run the clock down, the defense returned to the field to spoil the Colonials’ comeback attempt a week after they dominated their own homecoming game, in part because of an effort that bent but didn’t break in the fourth quarter, and of course a massive blunder from the Colonials’ kicking team late in the game.
Senior safety Rich Piekarski, who led the team with 10 tackles, said he was proud of the way the defense performed, especially in the second half.
“To come out here, obviously the special teams helped us out pinning them back in the five and ten yard line the first three four drives [in the third quarter]. We got a chance to pin our ears back and go get ‘em,” he said. “It was a huge win and great job by the defense to come out and make our different checks, our different schematics at half time to come out and play well.”
Dillon Buechel finished the game 23-41 for 202 yards and two touchdowns through the air playing in a rivalry game a ways down the road from Montour High School, where he dominated WPIAL action just a few years ago.
But as the offense still tries to figure out how to consistently execute and finish drives over the course of an entire game both through the air and on the ground, the defense seems to be clicking on all cylinders.
“As a defense, the talk within [our unit] is that we really feel like we’ve got something special,” Piekarski said. “Right now, we feel pretty good. The thing is, in our conference, we know it’s like this every year – it’s one game at a time. Every game is gonna be a dog fight like this one. We gotta go back, watch the film. If we keep doing what we’re doing though, we’re going to be pretty good.”
The Dukes, who now sit alone atop the NEC standings at 2-0, will ride their current three-game winning streak to Rhode Island to face Bryant (3-4 overall, 1-1 NEC) next Saturday at 1 p.m.
“We’ll start preparing on Monday and Tuesday,” said Buechel. “We’ll see what they look like on film. It’s another road one in the NEC. We know Bryant. We know they’re a good football team, so we need to prepare right this week and hopefully go up there and make some plays.”