NEW BRITAIN - As he walked back to his office following a meeting with his staff, Central Connecticut head football coach Pete Rossomando offered up an honest assessment of his team’s Week 3 matchup.
“I’m pretty nervous,” he said.
It’s understandable. The Blue Devils find themselves in a unique position heading into tonight’s home game against Ivy League school Columbia - they know little about their opponent and the Lions know plenty about them.
While CCSU (1-1) has gone through games against FBS school Ball State (a 42-6 loss) and Division II Lincoln (PA) (a 55-0 win), this will be Columbia’s season opener. The only action the Lions have seen against another team this season was a scrimmage against Division III Montclair State at the end of August. Not all that helpful.
“We have no idea what they’re going to be,” Rossomando said. “Obviously, they have the same coaching staff, so we have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to do, but there’s going to be some wrinkles we haven’t seen. We have to do a good job of making adjustments on the run. We should be ahead of them from a procedural standpoint. Will we be? I don’t know.”
What Rossomando and his coaching staff do know is the Lions are coming off their best season in 21 years, finishing 2017 with an 8-2 record, a five-win improvement from the year before and good for second in the Ivy League. Columbia’s only two losses were against Harvard and Yale in back-to-back weeks toward the end of the schedule.
The Lions are led by CCSU alum Al Bagnoli, who played for the Blue Devils from 1972-1974. This will be his first trip back to New Britain as a head coach, but he has had plenty of success during his time away. He won the Ivy League nine times during his 23-year tenure as Penn’s head coach and compiled a 148-80 record.
“This team is going to come in and play disciplined,” Rossomando said. “They’re going to play hard-nosed for four quarters. They’re going to do everything they need to do to win the game. I told our kids, ‘you’re going to have to win this game because they’re not going to hand it to you. I’ve watched six, seven games [from last season and] they haven’t given one away yet.”
But unlike CCSU, Columbia is coming in with a few new players at some key positions on offense, mainly at center and quarterback. Josh Bean, a sophomore, is expected to take over under center for the Lions after winning the competition out of camp.
He was mainly used in short-yardage running situations last season, where he turned 22 of his carries into eight touchdowns. Bean didn’t throw the ball much, not that he was asked to, attempting one pass which happened to go for a touchdown.
The Columbia signal caller should have a good enough supporting cast around him. Outside of center, Bean has most of his offensive line returning as well as the team’s top four pass catchers from a year ago in wide receivers Josh Wainwright, Ronald Smith, Kyle Castner and tight end Rory Schlageter. Smith was second-team All-Ivy, while Wainwright was first-time after setting a school record with 1,001 receiving yards.
“Offensively, their perimeter players are as good as any players in our league [the NEC],” Rossomando said. “They’re fast and make catches. They’re going to give us problems with a young secondary at times, I’m sure. They just do all the things they’re supposed to. They don’t commit turnovers.”
It’s on the defensive side, however, where the Lions tend to give most opponents issues.
Colombia gave up just 17.5 points per game last season, netted 15 sacks, picked off 13 passes and forced five fumbles. The Blue Devils come in averaging 30.5 points per contest, but those numbers are skewed by the two extremes in point totals throughout the first two weeks of the season.
“They run to the football, they’re in the right gaps, they don’t yield easily,” Rossomando said of the Lions’ defense. “Last year, their D-line was exceptional. They had three veteran guys. They’re gone now. How that affects them, I don’t know, but they do their job. You watch film and you’re like, ‘yup that’s where they’re supposed to be. They’re there, they’re there and they’re there.’”
This season, Colombia’s defensive backs should be the focal point of the unit. All four starters - Landon Baty, Will Allen, Ryan Gilbert and Ben McKeighan - are back. Baty and Allen were preseason All-Ivy selections.
“Very rarely are you going to trick those guys,” Rossomando said. “If we commit a lot of penalties and commit turnovers, you’re not going to stand a chance against a team like that. They’re going to be prepared coming in here.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org