NEW BRITAIN - One by one the Central Connecticut State football players exited the locker room. Some had somber expressions on their face, others angry. It was understandable.
As they walked off the field and out of the stadium, there was the prevailing thought the Blue Devils had let a game they had every chance to win slip away.
The players knew it. The coaches knew it. Even the fans in the stands knew. When all was said and done, the literal distance between victory and defeat could be measured: six inches here on a muffed punt that led to a touchdown; a few feet there on an overthrown pass to an open receiver streaking down the sideline; a drop by a wide open receiver that went right through his hands.
CCSU was close enough on a couple of plays, at least, to ponder “what if” following its 41-24 loss to Columbia Saturday at Arute Field and that might have been the worst part as the Blue Devils now find themselves trying to rebound for another loss.
“[We said] don’t beat yourself and we certainly did a pretty good job of that,” said CCSU head coach Pete Rossomando, whose team (1-2) still has two non-conference games remaining before facing the crucial part of its schedule with six straight NEC opponents.
In a way, it mirrors the start the Blue Devils had to their season in 2017. After losing to Syracuse, Fordham on a late interception and then Youngstown State, CCSU went on a run of eight straight wins, including six in the conference to win its first NEC title since 2010. It was also the first time the program made the FCS playoffs.
It was in Week 4 that season was when the Blue Devils were finally able to flip the switch, so to say, and this year’s group believes the upcoming matchup against Fordham can also be a turning point.
“We plan of doing what we did last year and running the table,” senior quarterback Jacob Dolegala said.
But before they do that, there is going to have to be plenty to clean up. It wasn’t like the lopsided loss to FBS opponent Ball State in the first week, where CCSU was outmatched. The loss on Saturday had too many sloppy elements.
Both teams were nearly identical in total offense (CCSU 365 yards, Columbia 324), offensive plays (CCSU 67, Columbia 63), yards per play (CCSU 5.4, Columbia 5.1) and time of possession (CCSU 29:42, Columbia 30:17). The Blue Devils, however, fumbled the ball five times, losing three of them, which led to 17 points for the Lions.
The first came when Columbia defensive lineman Mike Hinton stripped sacked Dolegala, allowing Sean White to recover the ball on CCSU’s 2-yard line four minutes into the opening quarter. Lions second-string quarterback Ty Lenhart carried the ball across the goal line on the next play to put his team up 7-0.
Lenhart later scored again in third after Tajik Bagley muffed a punt after being one of his teammates ran into him, putting the score at 27-14 and the game out of reach. It was the second fumble on specials teams from Bagley, the first leading to a field goal, negating the 82-yard punt return he had earlier.
Those 17 points just proved to be too much to overcome.
It also didn’t help that the Blue Devils were just 3-for-12 on third down or their rushing game which was so vital to last season’s success, only managed 45 yards on 24 carries. There were also a few throws Dolegala missed, overthrowing receivers on go routes down the sideline that had the possibility to go for touchdowns and make it more competitive than the final score should have indicated.
No one direct thing cost CCSU that game, it was just a culmination of all the little things that tend to make a big difference in the end.
“It all comes down to inches and football is a game of inches,” senior defensive lineman Chris Tinkham said. “Any little thing can swing the momentum.”
Perhaps the most troubling part was when asked the reason for the early-season struggles and miscues, there wasn’t a direct answer to provide. Some pointed to the focus, or lack thereof. Some didn’t really know.
“I don’t know if it’s kids thinking that this is last year’s team and we’re just going to roll teams or what,” Dolegala said. “But this is a new team and a new year and we have to practice the way we should practice and each individual practice leads up to what we do in the game. I’m not saying we had a bad week of practice, but it just wasn’t where it needed to be.”
For the Blue Devils, the effort was there on Saturday, even if the execution wasn’t. But the 2017 team isn’t going to walking down through the locker room doors. That season is over with and most of the players know as much.
The good news is there is time to fix it. CCSU’s first conference game isn’t until Oct. 20. The key will be if the players are going to. For now, they’re saying all the right things.
“We have to hold each other more accountable,” Tinkham said. “We can’t have those mental mistakes.”
After all, those little things matter.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org