Zach Grace | Staff Writer
FCS Playoff bound no more.
Duquesne’s football team (7-3, 4-1) lost a gut-wrenching NEC title game on Nov. 11 to Central Connecticut State (7-3, 5-0) at Arthur J. Rooney Athletic Field, forfeiting the NEC’s lone automatic — and presumably its only — FCS playoff bid to the Blue Devils.
A nail-biter of a game, the NEC’s top-two teams went down the wire, which made the loss all the more painful to swallow for Duquesne and its supporters.
Early on, the Dukes had little positive momentum as they watched their opposition dominate the greater part of the first half.
After jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead early on into the second quarter, Duquesne held Central Connecticut State on a third-down play in its own end, seemingly resulting in a customary Blue Devil field goal attempt.
However, instead of attempting a kick to pad its 14-point edge, Central Connecticut State ran a fluke field goal which it failed to convert.
Before the halftime break, Dukes star wide receiver Nehari Crawford went on to score a 22-yard touchdown, which brought Duquesne back to within seven points — effectively sparking a previously ineffective offensive attack.
Central Connecticut State’s failed fake field goal attempt partnered with Crawford’s score proved to be turning points for the Dukes, as the defense had newfound life upon returning to the field for the second half.
By altering their blitz packages, the Dukes were able to pressure Central Connecticut State quarterback Jake Dolegala much better after the halftime break than they had managed to do in the first half, and eventually forced two key Blue Devil turnovers.
With 4:04 remaining in the third quarter, sophomore running back A.J. Hines scored on a 7-yard rushing touchdown to finally tie the game’s score and swing the contest’s pendulum back toward the Dukes.
Duquesne’s offense managed to muster even more offense early on in the fourth quarter to give coach Jerry Schmitt an even more sizable lead via scores from playmakers Crawford (21-yard touchdown score) and Hines (45-yard rushing score).
However, despite two touchdown scores, the Dukes only held a 13-point lead, thanks to a John Domit extra point attempt that errantly sailed to the left following Crawford’s second score.
As time counted down in the game’s final stanza, Domit’s mishap began to become forgotten — especially as Duquesne drove the ball down the field again on its ensuing possession following Hines’ second rushing score with 10:29 left in regulation.
Central Connecticut State was all but ready to throw in the towel.
However, Duquesne opted to play conservatively by punting on fourth down, though it found itself far on CCSU’s side of the field with a large lead and about nine minutes left in the contest.
The Blue Devils took advantage of the opportunity afforded to them by Duquesne’s decision to punt, as they lead a drive down the field to score a touchdown.
After scoring again soon thereafter, Central Connecticut State led by one — thanks, in part, to Domit’s missed PAT earlier in the fourth quarter.
With the wind sucked out of its sails, Duquesne got the ball back with around two minutes left and started driving downfield.
Facing a third-and-goal at the 1-yard line with two timeouts remaining and 11 seconds left in regulation, Schmitt opted to run the clock down to :05 before calling a timeout in order to attempt a potentially game-winning 18-yard field goal attempt.
Brutally, Domit’s attempt sailed left again, ending Duquesne’s hopes of an NEC title while severely placating its FCS playoff aspirations.
2-9 last year, Central Connecticut State was picked fourth of seven teams in the NEC Preseason Coaches Poll, but the Blue Devils managed to take advantage of their opportunity to leap-frog other top contenders in order to claim the NEC this season.
It remains possible for Duquesne to win a share of the NEC, contingent upon a Duquesne win over Bryant on Nov. 18 partnered with a Central Connecticut State loss to last-place Robert Morris in the final regular-season game for both teams.
Even then, Central Connecticut State would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Dukes, which would still allow the Blue Devils to continue onto the FCS playoffs.
Next for Duquesne is a trip to Smithfield, Rhode Island, where it will play Bryant (5-5, 2-3) on Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. to conclude its 2017-18 regular-season.
After that lies a long and binding road to redemption.
The Dukes certainly won’t be short on motivation.