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September 1, 2012

Game Day: RMU at North Dakota State

Big games, and even one played in the unique environment of the FargoDome, are nothing nothing new to Robert Morris players.

After all, 21 players on the RMU roster in 2012 made the trek to Fargo in 2012. Even the players who didn't make the trek have experience in loud, energized environments, though little compares to playing inside a 20,000 seat dome.

The Basics
Who: North Dakota State Bison
Location: Fargo, North Dakota
Venue: The FargoDome (19,000 capacity)
Kickoff/Radio/TV: 7:00 p.m. EDT, WPIT 730 AM/wpitam.com, ESPN GamePlan, and ESPN3.com
Series Record: 1-0 NDSU

Head Coach: Craig Bohl
Record at NDSU : 75-31 (10th year)
Total Record: 75-31 (10)

Base Offense: West Coast
Base Defense: 4-3

Ten true freshmen are expected to make the trip to Fargo, including two at quarterback and two on the offensive line. But the ones who will likely make the most impact are on defense. Here are the freshmen to watch

#37 Kimani Smith: A late number change, the freshman linebacker is on the second team behind senior Brad Banas. Expect Smith to get a handful of reps to get him game experience, but his primary impact will be on special teams, where he's expected to be on every kicking unit.

#30 Brian Jones: Jones could make a splash immediately, as the true freshman corner will be back with Donte Jeter on kick returns. Jeter is more explosive, but Jones is sure-handed and has enough athleticism to make things happen. Jones is also a potential contributor at corner and as a gunner on special teams.

#4 Marcelis Branch: Another freshman corner who impressed in camp, look for Branch to play quite a bit on special teams. He's also worked quite a bit in certain packages for the Colonials, and while RMU will go with more experienced players to start and play in the nickel, Branch or Jones could play in dime packages


Along with suspended QB Jeff Sinclair, here's a list of Colonials whose status might be in question for Saturday. Injuries are officially listed by the RMU Athletic Department: DL R.J. Cook (ankle - probable), DL Sam Miller (illness - probable), OL Nate Hargraves (illness - probable), LB Kyle Cooper (foot - out), DB Clay Ilkin (elbow - out), DB Eric Lowry (hamstring - out), TE Cory Nolton (head - out), DB Ben Ridgeley (ankle - out)

"We probably had 10,000 to 11,000 people at our state championship," redshirt sophomore corner Malik Johnson said.

Johnson played at perennial Pittsburgh area power Pittsburgh Central Catholic, and he and teammate D.J. Myers played in a regional championship at Heinz Field.

Granted, that was high school. This is Division I FCS college football against the defending national champions. But the approach is part of an emphasis Robert Morris is placing on being prepared. The coaching staff piped through crowd noise throughout the week at practice, and while it still doesn't quite match the level of the FargoDome, sophomore quarterback Matt Layman said it helped with preparation.

"They can put as much crowd noise out here as they want, but nothing is going to be the same as the FargoDome," Layman said. "It's going to change game time where we'll have to do certain things to make sure everyone can hear me or getting the snap count down."

It's not just the offense that has to worry about the noise, although the Bison fans will likely dial it down a notch when their own offense is on the field. Johnson said the entire defense has to stay on the same page, no matter the noise level.

"Communication has to be the biggest thing. They said it's hard to hear with 20,000 people, sold out, so we have to really make eye contact when we're making calls," Johnson said. "You can't play slow. You can't get caught up in the lights."

Layman doesn't expect to have much of a voice after the game, but outside of the possibility of a little laryngitis, he doesn't expect his second career start to be much different from any other start he's made in his football career.

"I'll be honest. Yeah, you have butterflies. But every other game I've had butterflies. It's going to be a lot of fun and a good experience," he said. "It's definitely different. It's a big deal. It's a great opportunity for us to show our skills, show that we can bounce back from last year. And we're ready to prove to a lot of people that we're back and we're ready to win a conference championship."

Johnson and the defense will have to play an integral part in Robert Morris' quest for another Northeast Conference title. The defense has its own set of goals and benchmarks it feels it needs to reach to help the team win. Johnson said forcing turnovers will be a major component of that push.

"Coach (Bill) Hurley always strives you to make plays. If you're going to make mistakes, make it at a 100 percent. If you're going to jump a route, jump it at 100 percent," Johnson said. "If it don't work out, good for them, forget about. Defensive backs have to have the shortest memory. If you get beat, forget about it."

Multiple players are going to be asked to do more. That includes Layman, who will start the first two games while Jeff Sinclair serves a two-game suspension. In a sense, the Colonials have been preparing Layman for this since spring. Though Layman's first shot at starting last year as a true freshman ended with a torn labrum, bad hamstring, and concussion, he's been groomed as Sinclair's heir apparent all offseason. That included spring ball, where Layman and Sinclair were the only quarterbacks.

"My arm was sore after that. Three weeks of non-stop throwing was kind of brutal on the arm," Layman said. "It was good mentally. You definitely get the plays and get them cemented in your head."

Layman knew the extensive playbook quickly as a freshman, and now he said his focus has been on reading opposing defenses.

"Last year it was more of just let me get the plays down. You know what every receiver is doing on every play, and now it's just understanding what the coverages and defenses they throw at you," Layman said. "This year was more of recognizing how a corner is going to play a receiver or what coverage they're going to be in."

Crowd noise or no crowd noise, defending champs or not, for Layman and Robert Morris, Saturday still comes down to one thing: Execution.

"We've been clicking well. The line looks great, the receivers look great," Layman said. "I just have to get them the ball, get the ball to the running backs, and hopefully it all comes together Saturday."

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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