As leagues across the nation change their stripes, the football participants in the Northeast Conference haven't changed much. Sure, Albany is leaving after this season. Duquesne recently joined. Bryant moved up to Division I and is finally off of the probation period.
But the core of the league has been together basically since its inception. That fosters some quality rivalry games. The Robert Morris-Wagner rivalry hasn't been as tight as others in the league, nor has it been as long. But it's had some heat. Wagner coach Walt Hameline and RMU head coach Joe Walton are institutions at their schools and remain the only two active head coaches to have fields named after them in the league.
Last year, Wagner rolled into Robert Morris and unleashed Dominique Williams. The sophomore back ran for 216 yards and four touchdowns as Wagner won 38-17, essentially kicking Robert Morris when it was down. The Colonials were plagued with injuries, using their third string quarterback and piecing together a patchwork defensive line. One of the survivors, defensive tackle Farren Mason, said it's games like that where rivalries find their shape.
"It's very personal between our coaching staff and their coaching staff. There's a lot of history with that," Mason said. "We try to play with that high spirit. Every game is personal. I just hope we go up there and play strong."
This week is personal for Robert Morris, and it's not just Wagner's presence. Once again, the Colonials find themselves on the precipice of a season-altering game. Robert Morris can still salvage a winning season. At 2-5, 1-3 in the NEC, a league title isn't in their grasp anymore. But a strong finish could lead to a 6-5 record and some momentum to the offseason.
"Since I've been here, we've been over .500 once, and that was our championship year," Mason said. "Try to get it twice and go out on top for our seniors would be big."
Naturally, it won't be easy. Robert Morris hasn't pieced together back-to-back wins all season, let alone a five-game streak. And Robert Morris has been susceptible to big plays. Two 70-plus yarders burned the Colonials last week, though they were able to still beat Central Connecticut State 37-31.
"One of our big keys this week is communication. The big plays are happening because the coverage might be different than the front," Mason said. "It's just as simple as that. There's a lot of good talent in the NEC so you can't have those types of errors."
The communication might be an issue because of the turnover at middle linebacker. Four middle linebackers are on this week's injury list, with only Mike Cook truly expected to play. That would mean Luke Mueller, a redshirt sophomore who came on strong in relief last week, would get his first career start. Considering Robert Morris' defense is designed to funnel plays to the middle linebackers, the injuries have played a major role in this season. That's especially true when experienced players like senior Dan Mignogna join that injury list.
"Dan's like the brain. When Mueller comes in, he's playing more off of instinct. His speed is shown," Mason said. "I think he's doing really well. Losing Dan was big, especially senior year with him going out. Hopefully he gets a chance to come back. But we get lined up and play football."
Robert Morris will line up against a style of offense that's typically given the Colonials fits. Whatever the reason, Robert Morris has issue tracking dual-threat QBs out of the spread. But Wagner QB Nick Doscher hasn't been one to give RMU trouble. Instead, Mason expects to see a heavy dose of Williams.
"He's having a wonderful year, a great year. But hopefully with the experience on our D-Line and our depth, we can change some of that and alter some of his success," Mason said.
"You can't really stack the box because they'll spread you out. Hopefully we can hold him under 100 yards. He makes their offense go. If we shut him down, it'll be a game."
ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.