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Robert Morris defense grows up fast

Robert Morris defensive coordinator Scott Farison started to praise his players’ performance during a 30-23 upset of then-No. 14 Liberty early this season — a game in which the Colonials allowed 405 yards of offense — before his voice trailed off.

“We held them … well, we didn’t really hold them to anything,” Farison said.

Despite allowing all those yards — the most against Farison’s unit this season — the Colonials have extracted a lot of confidence from holding Liberty, which put up a Football Championship Subdivision-best 36.4 points per game in 2009 and is averaging 34.5 this year, below its typical output. That confidence, Farison said, has grown each week.

After allowing 82 points in their first three games, the Colonials have given up only 50 in the past five heading into Saturday afternoon’s Northeast Conference clash with Central Connecticut State at Joe Walton Stadium.

The Blue Devils (6-2, 5-0) boast the league’s top offense at 384.1 yards per game and also have the best rushing offense (215.4). Robert Morris (7-1, 6-0) is allowing a league-low 16.5 points per game and only 96.4 yards per contest on the ground.

“They’re the No. 1 rushing offense, and we’re the No. 1 rushing defense, so it should be a showdown,” said defensive end Nolan Nearhoof, a Mars graduate who leads the Colonials with four sacks.

The focal point of Central Connecticut State’s rushing attack is senior Everette Benjamin, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound bruiser. Benjamin, who transferred from Hofstra, has rushed for 953 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Another key component is junior quarterback Gunnar Jespersen (1,641 total yards, eight touchdowns).

Bringing multiple bodies at Benjamin and making Jespersen beat the Colonials with his arm, linebacker Alex DiMichele said, is what RMU will be looking to do.

“A lot of teams in the Northeast Conference are running teams,” said DiMichele, a Sto-Rox product who leads Robert Morris with 78 tackles. “If you can make somebody one-dimensional, it’s a wrap from there.”

Following the Liberty win, the Colonials held their next five opponents to 89.2 rushing yards per game and snagged 11 of their NEC-leading 15 interceptions. Nearhoof and DiMichele said there wasn’t any drastic change at practice: It was a back-to-basics approach with a renewed emphasis on executing assignments.

“We’ve learned how to eliminate mistakes, and we got back to playing Robert Morris defense, which is physical and aggressive,” DiMichele said. “We know that if our defense plays well, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

Notes: Quarterback Jeff Sinclair improved to 12-3 as a starter with a 34-11 win over Duquesne last week. … The defense leads the NEC in red-zone efficiency at 68.2 percent (15 of 22). … Running back Myles Russ, who became Robert Morris’ all-time leading rusher with 154 yards and two TDs last week, was named NEC Co-Offensive Player of the Week.


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