Dukes, Colonials brace for tough openers.
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Duquesne and Robert Morris are both expected to be among the best football teams in the Northeast Conference. Each has plenty of talent returning and both have experienced quarterbacks.
Both will find out where they stand quickly. Each has extremely difficult openers against two of the top teams in NCAA Division I-AA.
Robert Morris, in fact, will play at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D. against defending I-AA champion North Dakota State, which ranked No.1 in the preseason I-AA poll.
Not an easy task, but one that Robert Morris coach Joe Walton looks forward to because he believes the Colonials, with 17 returning starters, have a chance to compete with the Bison and gain some confidence for the season.
"You'd usually rather have a game against maybe someone you can handle first, just to get things worked out, but I have a pretty good group of veterans and I think they can handle this," Walton said. "But there is no hiding in this game, we are going to find out quickly where we stand. They have a lot of weapons and they really are truly a team worthy of their ranking."
Walton said that Robert Morris and all of the teams in the NEC have decided to strengthen their nonconference schedules. Playing more games against teams from the top I-AA conferences will help raise the profile of the NEC and strengthen its standing nationally when it comes to the awarding of playoff berths.
Duquesne also will have its hands full Saturday. The Dukes must travel to Foreman Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium in Norfolk, Va. to play against No. 6 ranked Old Dominion.
The Monarchs made it to the second round of the I-AA playoffs last year. With 17 returning starters, it is clear that they are a legitimate national championship contender but Duquesne coach Jerry Schmitt doesn't think his team will be intimidated.
In fact, the Dukes attitude about this game has been a clear indicator to Schmitt that they are becoming comfortable and -- in year five as a scholarship program -- are embracing the thought that they can compete at the national level.
Duquesne had been a non-scholarship program until 2008 when the Dukes moved to the NEC and offered 18 scholarships. This year that number has increased to 32 and Schmitt hopes to get to the full 40 -- the limit in the NEC -- within a year or two.
"You know a few years ago when we first made the jump we played Delaware which, like Old Dominion, is one of those nationally ranked FCS teams that offer the full complement (62) of scholarships," Schmitt said. "And our attitude was much different heading into that than it is heading into this game. I think back then we were a little more in awe of things and not sure what to expect but I think if you talk to our players now, it is more a matter of understanding it is a tough game but feeling like we can compete.
"This is obviously a great team we are playing but I do feel we've grown to the point where we can maybe give some teams like ODU a run, and that's the beauty of competition."
Junior Quarterback Sean Patterson will lead Duquesne, which finished 2011 at 9-2 (7-1 and co-champs of NEC), this year. Schmitt said his experience should be a big factor Saturday given the hostile environment the Dukes will play in.
And the same can be said for Robert Morris as they return senior quarterback Jeff Sinclair. He has led the Colonials into a number of hostile environments in his career as well.
"That really helps," Walton said of having an experienced quarterback in a road opener. "It is tough enough to get everything else in place for the first game, but when you have a quarterback who has been there and been in tough situations before it is one less thing you have to worry about."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @paulzeise.
First Published August 31, 2012 5:41 pm