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October 6, 2012

Game Day: RMU at St. Francis

There will be a temptation Saturday for Robert Morris' offense to think it's looking in the mirror. No, that's not their own defense out there, waiting to make a stop.

It'll just look like it, with a few twists.

The Basics
Who: St. Francis Red Flash
Venue: DeGol Field (3,500))
Kickoff/Radio/TV: Noon, WPIT 730 AM/wpitam.com, NEC FrontRow
Series Record: Robert Morris 15-2-1

Head Coach: Chris Villarrial
Record at St. Francis: 5-22 (3rd year)

Base Offense: Pistol Spread
Base Defense: Multiple

A couple of key areas could play major roles in deciding the game on Saturday for Robert Morris. Here are the two positions under the spotlight against St. Francis.

Defensive line: St. Francis is built on a strong running game. Quarterback John Kelly is nothing more than a game-manager under center, and the Red Flash will use him and a stable of backs to run the football. As crucial as the linebackers are to the RMU defense, the defensive line has to play the role of run-stopper on Saturday. That ranges from the ends getting into the backfield to the rotation at defensive tackle swallowing up holes in the middle.

QB Jeff Sinclair: More than any week, this one will be filled with mind-games. As detailed in the larger preview, St. Francis defensive coordinator Scott Benzel knows all about the RMU offense; he saw it every day in practice for nearly a decade. There will be adjustments, which makes it imperative for Sinclair to be able to communicate and execute adjustments on the fly. That includes making sure his communication with his receivers is sharp and timely so they can adjust at the line.

Here's what the injury list looks like entering Saturday: WR Chad Dawgiello (knee - probable); DB Antwan Eddie (ankle - probable); DB Eric Lowry (hamstring - probable); LB Mike Neilson (ankle - probable); WR Quinton Pirl (shoulder - probable); FB Nick Groat (shoulder - questionable); LB Kyle Cooper (foot) - out; WR Rickeem Jackson (ankle) - out; TE Cory Nolton (head) - out; DB Ben Ridgeley (ankle) - out.

That's what happens when your former co-defensive coordinator, Scott Benzel, takes a promotion to associate head coach and jumps to a league rival. Benzel is now orchestrating the St. Francis defense, and though he's had to adjust to a group that's been dreadful and is still learning to adjust to his attacking style, it'll likely contain a lot of elements that Benzel established at RMU with Scott Farison.

"It's like a normal week of practice. We just have to go harder and do the little things right, because that's what's going to separate us because he does know our plays," wide receiver Donte Jeter said. "The biggest thing is trying not to change too much of what we do. We want to work hard and get the same looks we get. But since he knows our offense, we have a couple different schemes we're going to throw at them just to change it up."

In a sense, this week is no different than any other week. Robert Morris routinely adjusts its playbook and points of emphasis based off of an opponent's strength and weaknesses as well as what's been working for the Colonials. Still, this week has featured extra mental preparation and has become even more of a chess match for head coach Joe Walton.

"Every week you do tweak things because other teams see it on film," Jeter said. "Coach knows (Benzel) knows certain things because he's been here so long, so there's a couple different things you have to throw at him just to keep him on his toes."

It's not just Benzel. His co-defensive coordinator at St. Francis is former RMU player and assistant Jake Nulph, while former RMU lineman and coach Colyn Haugh tutors the defensive line. And former RMU running back and assistant Sam Dorsett jumped to St. Francis this year and has taken over a running game that's become St. Francis' lifeblood.

Stopping the run will definitely be Robert Morris' game-plan on defense. But what about that offense? It's crucial not to pain this match-up as purely a Walton v. Benzel showdown. Benzel left in good-standing, a victim of circumstance and opportunity that RMU couldn't match. But both are ultra-competitive, and Walton would surely like to show his former assistant that the mentor still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Robert Morris' passing game is built on being able to adjust based off of what the defense shows prior to the snap. Jeter said the receivers will have to be extra sharp in making the correct reads alongside QB Jeff Sinclair in order to have success.

"The timing between the quarterback and the receivers is always key," Jeter said. "This week, especially, since we have tweaked certain things more than others, it's important that the quarterback and receivers are on point so that everything goes smoothly."

RMU is also hoping that last week's win over Lafayette is a sign that the offense is continuing to improve after a very sluggish start to 2012 with Sinclair sitting out the first two games of the season.

"Jeff is a big reason for that, having him back and knowing the offense," Jeter said. "I think he had to get his feet wet again, just a little bit, but he's been here for four years now. We started off real slow but we're definitely picking it up."

Underneath the coaching match-up and the chess match on the field is a larger issue at stake. Robert Morris still believes it has a team capable of contending in the Northeast Conference. Though they'd need some help to grab a title, they've played just one conference game and have seven to finish the season. It all starts Saturday.

"I don't think anyone has lost any hope through the early tests we've had. We faced some early adversity and I think we've done a good job of responding to it," Jeter said. "Our play shows each week that we've gotten better, put up more points, and made more big plays. The hope is still there that we can contend and I think we're up for the challenge to get back in the hunt and contend for the championship."

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

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