Head coach Jerry Schmitt has been able to look at his team from both ends of the spectrum in the Duquesne Dukes first two weeks of their 2018 season. First, he saw a group forced to deal with adversity after being struck down by Massachusetts, an FBS opponent. The next week, Schmitt watched the bounce back, and saw a lopsided result the following week against Division II Lock Haven.
So, despite being involved in two blowouts, Schmitt and the Dukes play their first FCS opponent with a 1-1 record, being outscored just 63-60 on the season. With a clean slate entering the meat of their schedule, Schmitt is looking for a team ready to focus in on the task at hand.
“I just got on them here about focusing,” Schmitt preached as the message this week. “It’s non-conference season. The teams change from FBS to Division II to Pioneer, so we have to focus in. Our whole things is that we’ve got to get better. I tell our staff, it’s camp still, as far as approaching our guys. We have to prepare for the game, but we’re still developing guys that are new to us.”
Getting two games to assess themselves against such disparities in talent likely gave the coaching staff a decent snapshot at what precisely the Dukes need to focus on as they prepare to face a Valparaiso team that pushed Duquesne to the edge when the teams squared off last season.
The Dukes went to Valparaiso and staved off the up and coming Crusaders, 45-40. Still, for a Valparaiso team that went 9-24 in their first four seasons with head coach Dave Cecchini, hanging with a program like Duquesne that has three straight seasons with at least seven wins signified a step forward overall in 2017 for the Crusaders. The team finished 6-5, recording their first winning season since 2003.
Now, with 23 seniors and juniors on the roster, their most in the Cecchini era, they look to build off of that early season battle and turn that into an early season win the following year.
“The fact that they’re an up-and-coming program in the Pioneer League made it a challenge for us last year,” Schmitt noted. “That’s a tough travel game out there. We had to score 45 points to win the game. Their offense does a great job. They have a really good quarterback. So, they’ll challenge our defense.”
Duquesne has expectations in their own right, and now have home field advantage on their side. They will look to remind Valparaiso that they still stand higher in the pecking order, and show that when it comes to competition on the same level as their own, they are still near the top of the class.
A.J. Hines vs. Experience Crusaders Linebackers
Despite winning in blowout fashion against Lock Haven, the Dukes were not able to establish a dominant presence on the ground. Star running back A.J. Hines ripped off 48 yards on his first two carries but finished with just seven total carries in the game.
Hines dealt with cramps and sat out for a portion of time in the late second quarter. He started the second half, but with the game out of hand, was rested for Valparaiso. While Schmitt expects Hines to be back to 100 percent against the Crusaders, he did note that the group as a whole needed to be more consistent when he went down.
“I think that I would have liked to have seen a little more consistency in our offensive running game,” stated Schmitt. “We were able to throw the ball. We kind of knew that going in. I thought we had some matchups. But I think in the running game, A.J. [Hines] went out with cramps. So I think that hurt it.”
Still, Schmitt was pretty sympathetic to his group, knowing that they were thin on depth coming into the game. Backup running back P.J. Fulmore missed the game and figures to miss the next game or two as well.
So, when Hines went down, the team was put in a tight spot behind the line. Such a tough spot that they had to pull a depth linebacker over to the offensive side of the ball for emergency situations. That emergency came on Saturday.
“Now we’ve got rookies in there missing normal holes and normal reads,” Schmitt said. [Lucas] D’Orazio ran the ball a bunch of times. We literally moved him from linebacker that week.”
D’Orazio finished with 57 yards on 12 carries, but the team will face a much tougher opponent in Valparaiso. This lack of depth could especially become an issue when factoring in the linebackers Duquesne will be lining up against.
The Crusaders start two All-PFL performers and the only two 100-tackle performers in their conference. Drew Snouffner and Nick Turner are joined by Mike Wheeler and Austin Petrie to complete a deep group.
Their linebacker corps features three seniors, four returning starters and 512 combined career tackles. Snouffner and Turner will start beside each other for the third straight season.
This is an experienced group, and they will give Hines all that he can handle this week. With the lack of depth behind him, this will be an interesting matchup to follow.
Crusaders veteran offensive line
Like the linebacker corps, Valparaiso is bringing back all of their starters on the offensive line. They are bringing back four starters from each of the past two seasons in redshirt juniors Andrew Lundberg and Jack Jarnigan and seniors Eric Rentschler and Tom Schofield.
The group has missed three games combined over the last 22 games. Schofield has started each of the previous 32 games and Rentschler goes 25 games back. When looking at a redshirt junior or senior to fill their fifth spot on the line, it is safe to say this is a solid group regarding experience.
This will be a good test for the Duquesne Dukes who have consistently been a strong run defense. They finished second in the conference last season allowing just 141.5 yards per game, holding four teams under 100 yards rushing.
So far this season, the Dukes have not been as strong. While the number is a bit inflated by the step up in competition against UMass, the Dukes are letting up 198 yards per game on the ground so far. In one of the best chances of their season to hold a team under 100 yards, the Dukes surrendered 114 yards on the ground to Lock Haven.
The early trend shows a defensive front that needs to prove something against an offensive line with the experience to put their backs up against a wall.
Nehari Crawford vs. Star crusader DB
Along with linebackers Drew Snouffner and Nick Turner, a third team captain comes on the defensive side of the ball in Josmar Diaz-Martinez. Diaz-Martinez has made 29 starts at strong safety, starting 21 consecutive games for the Crusaders.
While he will not matchup one-on-one with wide receiver Nehari Crawford, the chess match between the two should affect the outcome of the game. There is no doubt that Crawford carries the Dukes’ passing game. He has led Duquesne in back to back weeks to start the season. When Crawford went to Valparaiso last season, he left with nine receptions for 138 yards.
Diaz-Martinez and the Crusaders have to remember that matchup very well. How the experienced safety helps in adjusting his secondary against the pass will help tell the story as to whether or not his team pulls off the upset or not.
Alan Saunders contributed reporting to this story.