COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Pioneers look strong in opening-night win
FAIRFIELD — For at least one night, life wasn’t all that difficult for Sacred Heart.
In their opening act of 2018, the Pioneers — picked to finish near the bottom of the Northeast Conference — looked nothing like the pushover that many have pegged them to be. They were dominant from start to finish, pounding Lafayette 35-6 on Saturday at Alumni Field.
“It was good to just get the ball rolling, to finally get out here and go against a different opponent after 288 days of going against each other,” Sacred Heart quarterback Kevin Duke said. “It was good to hit some other people tonight.”
Duke, one of six returning starters on offense, was efficient and accurate. He connected with Andrew O’Neill for a 10-yard touchdown pass on the Pioneers’ opening drive, and finished the night 17-of-23 for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
While the Pioneers weren’t perfect — they committed seven penalties for 50 yards, and Duke, coming off a mistake-prone season, threw an interception — they overwhelmed Lafayette. They racked up 407 yards of offense, most of which came before Duke and a few other starters were pulled late in the third quarter.
“That’s what you expect from a fifth-year quarterback,” Pioneers head coach Mark Nofri said. “Again, he only played in 11 games last year. Prior to that, he had only played in a half. I’m expecting bigger and better things from him this year. He did exactly what I expected him to do tonight, except for the one mistake.”
The night began inauspiciously when running back Eli Terry limped off after taking a hard hit on the Pioneers’ first offensive play. Fortunately for the Pioneers, Jordan Meachum stepped up with a career-high 132 yards rushing on 17 carries while Julius Chestnut ran for 57 yards and two touchdowns.
Chestnut’s second touchdown run covered 31 yards and capped the scoring eight seconds into the fourth quarter.
“Any win, just to get us rolling, is always good,” Duke said. “Our line ... guys were young and we wanted to get them some first-game experience. Obviously, they did a damn good job. I’m proud of those guys, they really stepped up. They made my job easy. The running backs and wide receivers, it’s easy to throw them a 5-yard pass and watch them go 10 or 12.”
The Pioneers led 21-3 after Duke hit Kezio Snelling for a 6-yard touchdown 11 seconds before halftime. And it only got worse there for Lafayette, when safety Noah Provenzano returned a deflected screen pass 71 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Provenzano and the rest of Sacred Heart’s new and improved defense — which returned only four starters from 2017 — made life miserable for Lafayette’s quarterback duo of Shaun O’Malley and Cole Northrop. Together, they were a measly 16-of-31 for 136 yards and two interceptions.
“All week we’ve been talking about how everyone’s been doubting this defense,” said Provenzano, a senior. “We’re a young unit, but we proved today it doesn’t matter how old we are. It doesn’t matter how much experience we’ve got, we’re going to do our job. We showed up today.
“We only gave up six points. For us, that’s too much.”
Nofri, though, will take it. The Pioneers — picked sixth out of eight teams in the NEC preseason poll — didn’t leave him much to complain about.
“You try to block out all the noise,” Nofri said, regarding his team’s low expectations from the outside. “We talked … about how predictions in the preseason mean nothing — it’s where you stand at the end of the year. I know kids read it, and so do coaches. But you just try to block it out and focus on the first win. We did that.”