Spencer Thomas | Staff Writer
Sept. 2, 2021
After a successful spring 2021 season ended in heartbreak, the Duquesne football team has its sights set on another historic campaign.
Head Coach Jerry Schmitt returns for his 17th season at the helm. He leads the team into an early gauntlet, with its first two matchups coming against FBS programs — TCU and Ohio — away from Rooney Field.
Last year’s squad went undefeated in an abridged regular season and earned the final spot in the STATS FCS Top 25 Poll heading into the Northeast Conference Championship.
On April 11, it squared off with Sacred Heart in a rematch between two familiar opponents. The Dukes defeated the Pioneers, 30-27, on March 7. Despite erasing a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit, the Dukes fell, 34-27, in overtime of the rematch.
Without a conference championship title punching its ticket to the FCS Playoffs, Duquesne missed out for the second consecutive season.
The Dukes were picked to finish second in this year’s NEC Preseason Coaches Poll, receiving two first-place votes. Only Sacred Heart was picked ahead of Duquesne, receiving four first-place votes. Central Connecticut also received one first-place vote.
With a full slate of games this fall, the Dukes will have the opportunity to return to the FCS Playoffs for the first time since 2018, when they defeated Towson before falling to South Dakota State.
Though both sides of the ball were immensely valuable to the team’s success in the spring, growth is needed. In order to surpass last season’s win total, there need to be some key improvements on the defensive side of the ball.
Last year, when the defense was sound, the Dukes were unbeatable. In the three games not against Sacred Heart, the defense allowed a total of 27 points, including a shutout victory over Wagner.
However, in the two games against the Pioneers, they allowed a total of 61 points, including 34 in the season-ending defeat. The main flaws came with the run defense, which allowed nearly five yards per attempted rush.
Those improvements can be made.
All the members of last year’s front seven return, and their previous experience combined with a stable leadup to the season should massively benefit them. Defensive coordinator Dave Opfar has had two years to work with virtually the same players on the ground. Combining an improved rush defense with a lockdown secondary would create a scary sight for the opposition.
Quarterback Joe Mischler returns as perhaps the most notable player on the Bluff. Coming off a spring season that saw him throw for an average of 239 yards per game, the Erie, Pa., native earned a spot on this season’s FCS National Performer of the Year Trophy Watch List.
He’ll be tested early against a bolstering TCU defense in Week 1. In Week 2, Mischler will get to face Ohio, the team he spent the 2019 season with before transferring to Duquesne.
Running back Billy Lucas won the NEC Freshman of the Year Award in the spring and was a finalist on the Jerry Rice Award Watch List, which recognizes the top freshman at the FCS level.
He averaged 4.5 yards per carry, exploding for 110 yards and a touchdown in the rain in a March 28 win over Bryant. Expect him to once again combine with Mischler, his former high school teammate, to establish an intriguing pair this year.
Wide receiver Joey Isabella burst onto the scene this spring, winning NEC Rookie of the Week after he caught six passes for 49 yards in the March 14 win against Wagner.
He earned a starting spot in the season’s final two games and caught six passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns in the NEC Championship. Look for a massive step forward from Isabella, as he’s finally been able to go through an offseason program undeterred by Covid-19, paired with the chance to compete in a full 10-game season.
With matchups coming against both Sacred Heart (Oct. 23) and Central Connecticut (Nov. 13), Duquesne will get two late-season opportunities to cement itself as a top-tier team in the conference.
This year’s schedule is loaded with challenging opponents, but it also offers Duquesne the chance to beat the best in order to be the best at season’s end.
It all starts Saturday night, when the Dukes take on TCU at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas.
TCU, a member of the Big 12 Conference, finished last season with a 6-4 record. The Horned Frogs were scheduled to face Arkansas in the Mercari Texas Bowl, but the game was canceled due to Covid-19 issues in TCU’s program.