NEW BRITAIN - For the Central Connecticut football team, the long wait is finally over.
Not in terms of weeks between games, but for the first time in the program’s history, the Blue Devils have a chance to compete for a national title.
“It’s exciting,” CCSU head coach Pete Rossomando said. “I think our school is excited. It’s an opportunity to extend our season. There’s only 24 teams that get into this tournament and we’re one of them.”
That tournament - the FCS playoffs - starts today for the Blue Devils as they take their eight-game winning streak up North to face New Hampshire (7-4), a team that will be playing in the postseason for the 14th consecutive year.
The big question for CCSU (8-3) will not be how it responds to the first-time situation, but how will it perform, especially as an offense?
The Blue Devils will be without starting quarterback Jacob Dolegala and backup offensive lineman David Cinti today, both of whom were suspended for this game by Rossomando on Monday. Both are facing second-degree breach of peace charges following an off-campus party at their residence last weekend.
Dolegala, the program’s all-time leader in passing yards, started all 11 regular season games, completing 52.9 percent of his passes for 1,953 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s also run for 212 yards and four touchdowns on 52 carries.
So, in steps Tanner Kingsley.
The sophomore quarterback has thrown just 13 passes this season in relief duty, completing nine of those throws for 55 yards. But the lefty also has the ability to move around the pocket and scramble better than Dolegala.
“It’s better when your game planning for his skills set during the week,” Rossomando said. “When you’re coming up with a game plan for Jake, there might be some things [Tanner] isn’t comfortable in doing. It’s been a really good week for him. Tuesday was a little shaky, but Wednesday, Thursday and [Friday] he looked really good.
“Everyone is confident in him, the players and the coaches are confident in him. Obviously, I don’t know how he’s going to respond in the game, but he’s done a good job of handling everything.”
It will certainly be a test for Kingsley.
The Wildcats are a much different team at home than they are on the road. In the confines of its own stadium, New Hampshire is 5-0 this season, compared to 1-4 on the road and 1-0 at a neutral site.
Offensively, the Wildcats average 30.6 points per game this season at home, a touchdown more than its season average. On the road, the team averaged 12.4 points with two shutouts - one being a 21-0 loss to James Madison, the No. 1 overall seed in the FCS playoffs and last season’s champion with the other coming in the regular season finale in a 15-0 loss to Albany.
The same is true for New Hampshire’s defense. In its five home games, the unit allowed a combined 77 points (15.4 per game) and an opponent to score 20 just once. But in the other games, the unit is allowing opponents to score an average of 29.4 points per game with four scoring 21 points or more.
“They’re a relentless defense,” Rossomando said. “They bring pressure to put the decision maker in bad situations. For us, we have to be able to throw the football. They’re predicated on stopping the run, so they’ve given up some big plays through the air. Tanner has to be able to complete passes. But we also have to run the ball effectively to establish drives and keep our defense off the field.”
The key for CCSU’s defense will get its own pressure on Wildcats quarterback Trevor Knight with New Hampshire struggling to generate much of a run game. The Wildcats are averaging 269.3 yards per game through the air as opposed to just 105.3 on the ground. This season, Knight has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 2,851 yards and 23 touchdowns to only six interceptions.
But the Wildcats are prone to giving up sacks. Only three other FCS teams have allowed more than the 45 sacks New Hampshire has surrendered this season with the Wildcats giving up at least three sacks in nine of their 11 games. Overall, they are allowing an average of 4.1 sacks per game with Knight being taken down eight times in each of New Hampshire’s last two outings.
The Blue Devils have just 19 sacks this season, but have intercepted a Northeast Conference-best 14 passes and forced 12 fumbles.
“They’re a spread team that likes to put the ball in the air a lot,” Rossomando said. “We’ve got to keep him in the pocket. That’s where I think a lot of teams have been able to have success and get to him is when they’re able to contain him. When he’s able to get out and run, he’s a different player. We can’t let him get those yards and get behind us. We have to force him to make timing throws.”
Rossomando also knows his team has to continue doing what enabled it to wins its first conference title since 2010 and that is limit costly mistakes that an experienced team like New Hampshire will take advantage of.
“We can’t give them a short field and we can’t turn the ball over,” Rossomando said. “Those are musts, musts. We can’t put ourselves in those situations. But we also have to play like we’ve been playing, creating turnovers and get a touchdown in a non-conventional way such as on defense or special teams. That’s what has helped make us successful this season.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @DavidGlovach