Robert Morris secures NEC's first playoff berth
By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Moon Township, PA (Sports Network) -
As the final two minutes ticked away in Robert Morris' most important victory ever -- 42-24 over Central Connecticut State on Saturday -- Colonials record-setting running back Myles Russ worked the emotional sideline.
He hugged 16 teammates -- indeed, that number felt sweet. He threw in a couple chest bumps and raised both index fingers in the air. He even got scooped up in the air by senior teammates Nick England and Elias Navarro.
Then while the mass of humanity -- coaches, players and fans alike -- swelled to midfield immediately after the clock expired and Robert Morris clinched the Northeast Conference's first-ever automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, Russ was the one player who left the celebration prematurely.
He hopped up on the wall behind Robert Morris' team bench and stood on the grass just in front of the stands, imploring his father, Greg, to come down from high above so he could give him the biggest embrace of all on Senior Day.
"It's just a blessing that we came in as a team," Russ said. "One heart, one soul, one mind, one goal. That's one of the things that we've been preaching all year, and it's just crazy that we won on our Senior Day."
The Colonials (8-1, 7-0 NEC) will play their regular-season finale at Bryant next Saturday. Even if they are upset, the worst they could do is share the NEC title with CCSU, but the win over the Blue Devils (6-3, 5-1) in the head- to-head meeting would give them the automatic playoff berth.
It wasn't just Russ' big day. All of the Robert Morris seniors knew how to seize the moment.
Several minutes after the Russes soaked in the glory together, Carlos Andrade, the starting left tackle, stood in almost the same spot and proposed to girlfriend Kirsten Sims in a Boise State-type moment, while the stadium crowd looked on happily to her positive response.
Myles Russ rushed for 177 yards and one touchdown.
"It doesn't get better," Andrade said afterward. "We've got two rings right now. I'm getting the ring for the (NEC) title and she gets the ring to marry me."
That Russ would leave sunny Boca Raton, Fla., four years ago for suburban Pittsburgh (game-time temperature 37) was a marriage made in Joe Walton Stadium heaven.
Robert Morris' all-time leading rusher made a season-high 177 yards on 24 carries seem easy, adding a 44-yard touchdown in the third quarter to basically finish off CCSU's defending NEC champions, who would have moved into first place with a win.
The Blue Devils didn't advance to the FCS playoffs last year because the NEC never had an automatic bid until this season. They could have used last year's defense on Saturday because this year's unit ranks at the bottom of the NEC in stopping the run and was in for a long afternoon against Russ, his backfield sidekicks and Robert Morris' veteran offensive line. The Colonials finished with a school-record 335 rushing yards.
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Sinclair chipped in with two first-quarter touchdown passes -- giving him an NEC-best 20 this season -- while Alex DiMichele and fellow senior inside linebacker Elias Navarro fueled the defense with 13 tackles each.
"We really believed in each other," said DiMichele, part of the group of upperclassmen who have come into their own since midseason last year. The Colonials have won 13 of their last 14 games, with a plus-21 turnover ratio over that span.
"The first game of the year, after we lost to Dayton and went to Sacred Heart, Coach (Scott) Benzel (co-defensive coordinator) kept saying we have to be tight. Put your hands together and be tight as one group, you can't point fingers at each other. Every time before the game, I'd say it, 'One group, put it together, let's go.'
"No better feeling then to leave this last game here with a win," DiMichele added after the Colonials closed out a four-game home stand with their eighth straight win at "The Joe," the stadium named after Robert Morris institution Joe Walton, the only head coach the Colonials have known in 17 seasons as a program.
The 74-year-old Walton has a 104-68-1 record at Robert Morris, so the Colonials have enjoyed significant success under him. But after they won five straight NEC titles from 1996-2000, they slipped into mediocrity. The Colonials had four winning seasons from 2001-09 but had only a 38-49 record by the time they passed the midway point of the 2009 season with a dreadful 0-6 mark.
By then, Walton had scrapped the early season plan to start either of his two seniors at quarterback and was allowing Sinclair to get his feet wet as a true freshman starter.
The decision changed the Colonials' fortunes. Following losses in Sinclair's first two career starts, Robert Morris won its final five games to finish 5-6 and take high hopes into 2010. The Colonials' veteran squad returned 19 starters -- all but Sinclair a senior and junior -- and none was about to take his foot off the pedal.
The momentum led up to Saturday's memorable performance.
In a fast-paced first quarter, both teams scored on their first two possessions, with Robert Morris taking a 14-10 lead. But the Colonials took control of the game immediately after the game's first punt.
Senior punter Nick Schirtzinger, who has never missed a start in his four seasons, pinned CCSU on its two-yard line with 2:14 left. On the Blue Devils' first play, DiMichele stripped the ball from running back Everette Benjamin and pounced on the fumble inside the one. It was easy work from there as Jeff Link plowed into the Blue Devils' end zone on the Colonials' first play, giving them a 21-10 lead with 2:01 left in the first quarter.
Raphael Johnson's two-yard touchdown run with 6:05 left in the second quarter extended Robert Morris' lead to 28-10 before CCSU responded on the first play of its ensuing possession. Quarterback Gunnar Jespersen, a California junior college transfer who committed to the New Britain school site unseen earlier this year, fired a 60-yard TD bomb to Josue Paul, making it 28-17.
But Russ' touchdown run on Robert Morris' first possession of the third quarter basically deflated CCSU. He danced along the Blue Devils' sideline for the 44 yards to make it 35-17. In the process, he went over 4,000 yards for his career.
In fact, it was another record-setting game for Russ, a Tax Day (April 15) baby in 1989 who has been making defenses pay ever since he started zigzagging through them. A week after surpassing Sam Dorsett, his running backs coach, for the school's all-time rushing record, the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Russ moved beyond Dorsett for the Colonials' all-purpose yardage record. He has 4,045 rushing yards and 4,410 all-purpose yards in his career.
"We just tried to keep on putting the pressure on them because their offense was doing a pretty good at that time," Russ said.
The Colonials later converted a fake punt in CCSU territory for a first down that kept a drive alive, and Link scored on a six-yard run.
By that point, CCSU coach Jeff McInerney was about as happy as Randy Moss standing in the buffet line. McInerney has a 36-18 record in five seasons guiding the Blue Devils, but is only 1-4 against the Colonials, including losses in all three of his visits to Moon Township.
The loss ended CCSU's five-game winning streak, which coincided with Benjamin rushing for at least 100 yards in five straight games. Robert Morris limited him to 76 yards on 19 carries.
"This year's team basically did more than I thought it would," McInerney said. "We knew coming here it was going to be [tough]. They have a lot of seniors. To their credit, they're first class and they won the game today. We tried to tackle (Russ) and at times we didn't tackle him very well.
"We just made too many mistakes to win on the road."
Robert Morris' 10-0 squad of 2000 thought it had an outside shot of gaining at-large bid to the FCS playoffs, but Walton never got that call.
This year, the Colonials already know their Thanksgiving week plans will be different. On Sunday, Nov. 21, they will learn their postseason draw. Then, six days later, the Colonials will do something an NEC program has ever done before -- play in the FCS playoffs.
"Everything we dreamed of, we worked so hard," DiMichele said. "Last year, we won our last five games. All summer long, we would text each other and tell each other, this is what we have that to work for, we want an NEC championship."
"Putting that ring on is gonna feel so good," Russ said. "I'm trying to stay focused because I know we still have a long way to go."