The Duquesne Football Team was practicing in a seasonably chilly Wednesday afternoon at Rooney Field when the sight of a university police car caught some eyes.
With students on Thanksgiving break and the Dukes on the tail end of practice, the officer went for his megaphone with a message.
“Congratulations Duquesne, NEC Champions,” the officer said before flashing his lights.
The team briefly paused its practice to lift its respective helmets in the air to acknowledge the well wishes as it prepares for its Saturday matchup at Youngstown State in the first round of the FCS Playoffs.
“We have a great group of young men that set a goal and were committed to it and did the right things, continuing to get better and overcome adversity,” Duquesne football coach Jerry Schmitt stated. “I really was impressed with how our guys continued each game and kept getting better. Been very few times during the season that I had to rally them mentally or emotionally.”
When Duquesne last was home on senior day, it was unable to play a clean game to secure the NEC’s automatic berth into the playoffs, instead being riddled by mistakes in all facets.
Schmitt had said at that point that it would be tough to turn the page, but that is exactly what the Dukes have been able to do all season and last week proved no different.
Duquesne limited its miscues to one penalty and its two turnovers came off a mishap on a punt and on a deep pass in the closing seconds of the first half.
The Dukes were able to secure victory and make their first FCS Playoff appearance since 2018.
“There’s not many times you get a second chance in life, right,” junior linebacker Gianni Rizzo asked. “It was our hard work throughout the season and what we did before that which put us in that position. We were able to drop a game, we didn’t want to, but had that second chance. The last six weeks before that we put in the work and won those games. We got a second chance and capitalized.”
This season has truly been one where all hands have been on deck, especially on the defensive end where A.J. Ackerman, Kevin Kurzinger and Shane Stump, all of whom were voted captains by the players suffered injuries.
This experienced trio, instead mentored those who were on the field, making sure every single player grew and got better.
As it stands, there are players who were not on the travel squad mid season who had multiple meaningful and crucial downs at Merrimack.
Quarterback Darrius Perrantes has been banged up at times this season, including the penultimate regular season game against Stonehill where he went to the locker room and a lengthy television timeout.
“This team is full of leaders and that has allowed me to just play my game,” he explained. “They push me to be the best I can be, even when I’m hurt. I just try to rally myself and take it play by play. It’s a physical game, that’s why I play it. I love it. My teammates do a great job of keeping my head up when things are down.”
Perrantes was named to the NEC First Team All-Conference and was one of 10 Dukes to earn honors.
Joining him on the first time were wide receiver DJ Powell, defensive back Ayden Garnes and defensive back Noah Palmer. Rizzo, Wide out Keshawn Brown, center Michael Dorundo, defensive back Dayvia Gbor, defensive lineman Ryan Lopez and running back Edward Robinson all made the second team.
Schmitt was named NEC Coach of the Year.
“Coach Schmitt has done a great job in the offseason bringing in a lot of key players we needed,” stated Perrantes. “He’s been a great leader, knows what to tell us, when to say it and rallies us around our main goal of playing every play. I’m happy he’s my coach.”
As Duquesne got back into Pittsburgh, the police were waiting. The Dukes had gotten police escorts before this season, but as the team got back to Pittsburgh with university president Ken Gormley and others present, it was a chance to enjoy a comeback this team had envisioned all season.
“That’s awesome, that’s great, that’s what it’s about,” Schmitt beamed. “You earn that, and we’ve had some really good escorts (this season) but that was the best one we’ve ever had because it meant so much.”
A FAMILIAR FOE
Throughout Sunday morning Rizzo had texted with Youngstown State players. The North Huntingdon native had transferred from that program after the 2021 season and all of a sudden Rizzo saw Duquesne’s name during the team’s watch party at the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.
30 seconds later, another familiar name was revealed on the screen. It was on.
“I know a lot of guys on the team, familiar with the coaches,” Rizzo determined. “We studied the film and we’ll be ready. They’re not scary. I respect all of them, I’m happy they got in. They’re still my friends, they put in the work just like we did. It’s just funny how it works out, a little homecoming.”
These two programs are quite familiar with each other and will be meeting for the sixth time on Saturday, with Duquesne seeking its first win in program history against the Penguins.
The Dukes most recently faced Youngstown State last season in a 31-14 losing effort.
Schmitt acknowledged that the opponent has had their share of ups and downs but that coach Doug Phillips has the program back on the upswing and are on their way back to getting to the championship level.
This week has been a scramble for Duquesne in that Sunday afternoon the match was determined whereas normally all previous opposing games have been broken down. Instead it was a mad dash to get things broken down, make preparations, have a game plan ready come Monday and introduce it to the team.
Duquesne will be healthier than it was a week before with a couple of players on the border having the chance to get on the field.
During Wednesday’s practice Schmitt turned and asked how everything looked. Upon receiving a satisfactory answer, he smiled, “these guys are dialed in, they’re ready.”