NEC Preview: Week No. 8

Somerset, NJ -- Three of the four games on the docket are Northeast Conference bouts, none with greater significance to the title race than the battle between defending league champion Albany and 6-and-0 Sacred Heart.

This Week's Games

  • Albany and Sacred Heart have enjoyed back-to-back victories in opening their conference schedules, but only one will remain atop the league standings after Saturday's quarrel at Campus Field. (more)
  • Duquesne heads to Central Connecticut State with each team aiming to forget about last week's conference losses. (more)
  • Meanwhile, Wagner and Saint Francis (PA) are hoping to stop slides when they meet at DeGol Field. (more)
  • With Monmouth enjoying a bye, Robert Morris plays the lone non-league game of the week. The Colonials travel to Bryant in what will be a NEC match-up come 2012. (more)

Albany (3-3, 2-0 NEC) at Sacred Heart (6-0, 2-0 NEC)
Location: Fairfield, CT (Campus Field)
Kickoff: Saturday at 1:00 pm

The defending NEC champions meet the season's biggest surprise challenger at Sacred Heart's Campus Field and something's got to give. Albany has won eight straight contests against conference foes dating back to the start of its 2007 championship run. The Great Danes have responded to the completion of their intense non-league schedule by knocking off NEC member Duquesne and 2007 runner-up Central Connecticut State in back-to-back weeks. Sacred Heart is off to a 6-and-0 start for the first time since it last won the NEC title in 2001. The Pioneers' resurgence under fifth-year head coach Paul Gorham comes after last season's winless showing during conference play. Sacred Heart has passed its first two NEC tests this time around, edging Robert Morris at home and pulling away from Saint Francis (PA) on the road. SHU quarterback Dale Fink (Swansea, IL/Althoff Catholic) and the NEC's top-ranked scoring offense (34.5 ppg) inarguably faces it toughest task thus far against the battle-tested Great Danes.

Albany held the notoriously effective Central Connecticut State rushing attack, which has ranked amongst the nation's top-10 in each of the past three seasons, to a season-low 160 yards, marking the first time this season the Blue Devils could not manage at least 200 yards on the ground. The Great Danes' biggest defensive play came in the passing game when junior linebacker Justin Brancaccio (Rockaway, NJ/Morris Knolls) broke up a game-tying two-point conversion attempt with 55 seconds to play. Big plays such as Brancaccio's will be in high demand on Saturday when Albany's faces the league's most efficient signal caller. Fink leads the conference in completion percentage (67.8) and touchdowns (15) with six of those scoring strikes going to SHU's all-time receptions leader Steve Tedesco (Mission Viejo, CA/Trabuco Hills).

The Great Danes will look to keep the ball out of Fink's hands by controlling the possession game through an effective rushing attack spearheaded by junior tailback David McCarty (Gansevoort, NY/LaSalle Institute), the nation's eighth-leading ball carrier (135.17 ypg). The NEC's number one scoring defense (20.5 ppg) won't likely intimidate McCarty, who rushed for 130 yards at No. 11 New Hampshire and 125 yards at tenth-ranked Massachusetts. McCarty is equally as dangerous in the passing game. Tallying a career-high 96 receiving yards in the win over CCSU, McCarty took a screen pass from quarterback Vinny Esposito (Demarest, NJ/Northern Valley) 72 yards for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.

Duquesne (2-3, 1-2 NEC) at Central Connecticut State (4-2, 1-1 NEC)
Location: New Britain, CT (Arute Field)
Kickoff: Saturday at 1:00 pm

Two teams looking to rebound off tough league losses last week collide in New Britain, CT. Central Connecticut State returns home to Arute Field following a heart-breaking, two-point loss to Albany in what served as a rematch of last year's NEC title game. Duquesne's most-recent outing was also a game that had greater meaning than its effect of the league standings. The Dukes lost Steel City bragging rights to Robert Morris in front of a NEC-TV audience last week at Joe Walton Stadium as a result of a record rushing day on behalf of the Colonials' Myles Russ. If any program knows how to capitalize off a vulnerable opposing run defense it is Central Connecticut State. The Blue Devils are tenth amongst the nation's rushing leaders with sixth-ranked rusher James Mallory (Buffalo, NY/Kenmore West) accounting for 141.33 of the 225.0 yards the ground attack averages per game.

Duquesne has likely spent the past week closely studying the film from CCSU's loss at Albany during which the Great Danes held the Blue Devils to a season-low 160 rushing yards. The Dukes have the tools to tighten up their run defense in an attempt to become the second club this season to hold CCSU's rushing output under 200 yards. DU sophomore linebacker Nathan Totino (Pittsburgh, PA/Seton-LaSalle) owns a NEC-best 14.8 tackles-per-game average, while junior lineman Mykol Gardiner (Cleveland, OH/Benedictine) is quick off the ball. Central Connecticut State's defense will have to prepare for the league's most-productive passing attack (283.6 ypg) led by sophomore quarterback Connor Dixon (South Park, PA/South Park). Despite leaving the game when suffering a left forearm injury on a 13-yard, first-quarter scramble, Dixon returned to lead Duquesne on two second-half scoring drives that were capped by touchdown runs from junior Cleodis Williams (Carlisle, PA/Carlisle). Duquesne's primary ball carrier will likely see a lot of Central Connecticut State senior linebacker Mike Cooke (Brooklyn, NY Lackawanna JC) who has made a team-high seven stops for loss.

Robert Morris (2-4) at Bryant (3-3)
Location: Smithfield, RI (Bulldog Stadium)
Kickoff: Saturday at 1:00 pm

After an important emotional win in last week's Steel City showdown, Robert Morris becomes the fourth Northeast Conference team to meet Bryant this season. Joe Walton's Colonials head into Smithfield, RI where Marty Fine's Bulldogs will take the field in front of a home crowd for the first time since falling, 30-17, to Monmouth on September 20. The Hawks' Dave Sinisi (Cedar Grove, NJ/Cedar Grove), who was recently added to the Walter Payton Award Watch List, ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns in that defeat of Bryant, posting numbers Robert Morris sophomore tailback Myles Russ (Boca Raton, FL/West Boca) will look to emulate. On the way to the NEC Offensive Player of the Week award and his second 200-plus-yard performance, Russ carried the ball a program-record 37 times for 246 yards to power the Colonials past Duquesne.

Bryant hopes for a repeat of its road performance at Wagner when the Bulldogs held the Seahawks to -17 yards rushing on the way to their first win over a Division I program. Bryant must now attempt to slow the conference's top-ranked offensive attack (403.5 ypg) headed by veteran signal caller Erik Cwalisnki (Jacobsburg, OH/Shadyside). Bryant defensive lineman Don Smith has made a habit of disrupting opposing passers, owning a team-high 4.0 sacks. On the other side of the ball, Bryant's Jerrell Smith, who averages 197 all-purpose yards per contest, has rushed for a combined 494 yards over three victories. He likely hasn't faced a defense with a linebacker that has the instincts and quickness of Robert Morris sophomore Alex DiMichele (Pittsburgh, PA/Sto-rox). The Temple (DI FBS) transfer has made the second-most tackles (69) in the NEC.

Wagner (2-4, 0-2 NEC) at Saint Francis (PA) (0-6, 0-3 NEC)
Location: Loretto, PA (DeGol Field)
Kickoff: Saturday at 1:00 pm

Two teams in search of their first league win square off in Loretto, PA. With Wagner having taken 14 of 17 all-time meetings with Saint Francis (PA), one may assume the Seahawks are more likely to emerge victorious at DeGol Field. Recent history suggests otherwise. The Red Flash have taken the two most-recent meetings, including a 23-20 victory at Wagner last November. Saint Francis (PA) running back Calvin Williams (Cleveland, OH/Cleveland South) enjoyed a break-out performance against the Seahawks, rushing 35 times for 159 yards. The junior ball carrier has shown flashes of brilliance this season, but continues to struggle with consistency as evidenced by his 3.2 yards-per-carry average. Still, long-time Wagner head coach Walt Hameline likely wouldn't mind having Williams take hand-offs for his offensive unit, which has seen its top two rushers succumb to injury.

Junior Shane Smith (Susquehanna, PA/Milford Academy) and rookie Prince Young (Neptune, NJ/Brick Memorial), who each have 100-yard performances to their credit, only begin the list of injuries the Seahawks have incurred thus far. Junior quarterback Adam Farnsworth (North Ogden, UT/Weber) could miss his second consecutive start due to an injury suffered in the NEC opener at Central Connecticut State. The loss of senior halfback Rodney Davis (Bristol, PA/Neshaminy) has further depleted Wagner's depth. Head coach Dave Opfar's Red Flash have not avoided the injury bug either. Senior wide receiver Antoine Rivera (Willingboro, NJ/Willingboro), one of the conference's top pass-catching playmakers, was lost for the season in the Flash's second game. Each team has also experienced difficulty in the turnover game with the Seahawks (-8) giving the ball away a league-high 14 times compared to 12 turnovers by the Red Flash (-4). If one side can figure out a way to better protect the ball, it will surely have a advantage in Saturday.

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