Robert Morris football preview

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Coach: Joe Walton, 19th season at Robert Morris (105-79-1).

2011 record: 2-9 overall, 2-6 in the Northeast Conference (8th).

Key game: Sept. 8 at home against Albany. The Colonials are looking to return to the top of the NEC after a down season and, in order to do so, they must prove they can beat the conference's top teams. Albany is the defending champion. A win here would send a loud message to the rest of the conference.

Key returners: Quarterback Jeff Sinclair threw for 1,323 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and running back Deontae Howard was the team's leading rusher (48.2 yards per game), so the Colonials backfield is experienced. The line is anchored by left tackle A.J. Dalton (6 feet 5, 285 pounds), a three-year starter. Defensively, the team returns starting ends Steve Mitchell and Nolan Nearhoof. Outside linebacker Brad Banas (6-1, 230) had 47 tackles, including five for loss. Both kicker Greg Langer (12 of 15 field-goal attempts) and punter Tony LaMancusa (34.9 yards per punt) return.

Analysis: The Colonials took a huge step back last year after winning the NEC championship in 2010, but they appear ready to contend again. Robert Morris returns seven starters on offense, eight on defense and both specialists, but they need to survive a brutal early schedule. Sinclair will be the key. He must improve his touchdown-to-interception ratio (he threw for 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season), but he has a good group of veteran receivers, and the offensive line, with three returning starters, should be a strength. The Colonials, however, will know exactly where they stand after they play defending Division I-AA champion North Dakota State in their opener then Albany in week two.

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