With three Super Bowl rings wrapped around his meaty fingers and a muscular frame befitting a former NFL lineman, John Banaszak knows defense.
The Robert Morris coach was a member of multiple Steelers championship teams in the late 1970s, a time when the franchise had perhaps the most iconic defense in the game’s history.
He lined up next to the likes of Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood.
He was a member of a defense in 1976 that allowed 28 points in a nine-game stretch, helping lead the team to an AFC championship game in an otherwise injury-plagued season.
So when Banaszak, in his first game as Robert Morris’ coach, heard that his team allowed 624 yards in a 29-10 loss to Eastern Kentucky, he only had once reaction.
“Ouch,” he said after letting out a noise that was half groan and half shriek.
On a Thursday night in which everything appeared new for the Colonials — most notably, with a coach other than Joe Walton roaming the sideline for the first time in the program’s history — the end result was begrudgingly familiar.
Three hundred and sixty four days after losing to Eastern Kentucky, 38-6, in its season opener last season, Robert Morris fell to the Colonels at Joe Walton Stadium.
The loss was marred by a porous defense that allowed the third-most yards in program history and the most it had given up in a game since September 2001.
In all, Eastern Kentucky had 407 rushing yards and 35 first downs; Robert Morris had 28 rushing yards and 13 first downs.
“Eastern Kentucky certainly is a heck of a football team and they ran the ball really, really well,” Banaszak said. “They had their way, there’s no doubt about that.”
Four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble) made the margin of defeat much more reasonable than it could have been against a Colonels team that was listed among the other receiving votes in the Division I-AA preseason poll.
Using a hurry-up offense Banaszak implemented in the offseason, the Colonials ran plays in quick succession.
That speed, though, did not translate to anything tangible for much of the game.
Robert Morris did not get a first down until 12 minutes into the game and it took 20 minutes for its offense to cross the 50-yard line.
The Colonels scored late in the first quarter with a 42-yard touchdown pass from Bennie Coney to Channing Fugate to go up, 7-0, a play in which Eastern Kentucky’s stocky fullback ran down the sideline through myriad missed tackles.
Robert Morris responded five minutes later with a field goal, but on its next drive, Eastern Kentucky marched 78 yards in 11 plays, a possession finished off by a designed quarterback draw in which Jared McClain went 18 yards almost untouched.
A 17-yard touchdown run from Rameses Owen in the fourth quarter — one that brought the Colonials within 13 points, 23-10 — looked like it could spark a potential comeback. However, an Eastern Kentucky touchdown five minutes later ended any such hopes.
“I told them at halftime, ‘Take this game into the fourth quarter,’ and I thought we took the game into the fourth quarter,” Banaszak said.
“If we make some plays and keep the defense off the field, it may have been a little different.”
Quarterback Luke Brumbaugh, a Seton-La Salle graduate making his first college start, was solid, completing 28 of 51 passes for 222 yards when not running away from charging defensive linemen, as was the case for much of the game.
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
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