By Jason Bowen
Sometimes a team begins the year on fire. Offense, defense and special teams, all working in perfect concert to produce victories.
In the eastern conferences that this column covers (NJAC, MAC, E8 and LL), there are seven teams that have started the season 2-0: Albright, Brockport, Christopher Newport, Delaware Valley, Frostburg, Rowan and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
It’s not surprising to see any of these programs come out of the gate hot. But RPI has not only come out this season on fire — averaging 40 and allowing just seven points a game.
The Engineers started this season by actually eating fire.
To accomplish the task, RPI coach Ralph Isernia enlisted mental conditioning coach Brian Cain.
“He has us eat fire,” senior cornerback Sean Egan said. “It teaches that everything is mental and if you think you can do something, you can do it. So we all ate some fire. Coach ‘I’ comes out at the end, and took two sticks of fire and ate them both at the same time.”
So while Isernia is not quite sure that eating fire has anything to do with the Engineers’ hot start, like any successful educator, he was trying to send a message to his team.
“It’s more about committing to something and following through,” Isernia said. “I highly recommend it.
“We were talking about our culture, values, how to deal with adversity and mental toughness. The fire eating is about committing to something and not looking back. We you’ve got that fire in your face and you go really slow you wind up with (a burn). You know the technique. You know exactly what you’re supposed to do. You commit to it. I think it really resonated with the guys.”
It hasn’t hurt, at least. In their opening two games the Engineers have outscored William Paterson and WPI by combined 81-14. The offense has averaged nearly 450 yards a game, while defense allows less than 200.
“It all starts with our defense. We are playing great defense right now. We are stopping the run, getting the offense off schedule and we have the ability to get pressure on the passer. We’ve got a veteran group on the defensive side. When you have guys that have been in the system for a number of years, the get to automatic very quickly.”
That was evident last Saturday when the defense forced six turnovers, including three interceptions by Egan, who was named to the D3football.com Team of the Week. Last season, he earned third team All-East honors.
“Our d-line has been playing unbelievable,” Egan said. “A couple of those picks were caused by them putting the quarterback under duress.”
The offense has been greatly improved too. A veteran offensive line and the maturation of junior quarterback Ed Trimpert has been key. Adding their depth and experience at the skill positions has made RPI potent. Trimpert has completed more than 70 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns to six different receivers. In the run game, three backs have 99 of more rushing yards. As a unit, the Engineers have almost 500 rushing yards and nearly 400 passing.
“We are more balanced and diverse than a year ago,” Isernia said. “We starting to see those reps take form in really go execution on the field. It’s one unit feeding off the other.”
Egan returned to the Troy, N.Y., area where he grew up after transferring back from Fairfield where he played baseball during his freshman year.
“I picked RPI because it’s a great engineering school with unbelievable facilities and it’s close to home, Egan added. “I just missed football too much not to play anymore.”
At 6-2, 200 pounds, the senior has developed into one of the top corners in D-III. He has added 2.5 tackles for loss, two pass break ups and a forced fumble.
“He’s one of the best young men that I’ve ever coached,” Isernia said. “He is dedicated to his craft. He’s a great team leader. He’s a great student, working with different charities. He’s got tremendous work ethic --- the first one to practice and last one to leave. We have to kick him out of the film room.”
RPI finished 6-5 last season, following a 9-2 season in 2015. In both seasons, they won an ECAC bowl game. This year, they look to be in the thick of the race for the Liberty League championship once again. The remaining schedule includes nonconference games with Western New England, Alfred, both playoff teams last season along with Buffalo St. In conference, Hobart, whom they have defeated the past two seasons, Ithaca and St. Lawrence appear to be their stiffest competitors.
“Six and five wasn’t actually where we wanted to be last year,” Egan said. “It was nice to get that bowl victory but we’re just taking it one game at a time, make sure we focus each week in practice.”
Games this Week
No. 11 Frostburg State (2-0, 1-0 NJAC) at Christopher Newport (2-0, 1-0) Both have started the season quickly. This Saturday night game may go a long way in determining the NJAC champion. Captain quarterback K.J. Kearney has completed over 74 percent for 551 yards while tossing six touchdowns with no picks. He’ll taken on a defense that held CNU to its lowest offensive output last season in 17-6 Bobcat win. FSU has allowed just 202 yards a game, while notching 11 sacks including, including three by interior lineman Niles Scott. Frostburg showed explosiveness on offense and special teams with scoring plays of 77 (punt return), 57 (pass play) and 49 yards (a run) in the first 12:43 last week against TCNJ.
No. 12 Delaware Valley (2-0, 1-0 MAC) at Wilkes (0-2, 0-1) The Colonels pulled off an upset of MAC champ Stevenson late last season, they’ll need a similar effort on Saturday against DVU to be in the game. The Aggies dominated Lycoming on the road last week after upsetting Wesley in Labor Day weekend. After a bend but don’t break performance against the Wolverines, DVU allowed just 82 yards total to the Warriors. The Colonels have been outscored 98-19 so far this season.
Utica (1-1, 0-0 E8) at No. 19 Alfred (1-0, 0-0) The Saxons have had two weeks to prepare after nipping Ithaca in week one. The Pioneers were left scratching their heads after falling to Catholic on the road last week 16-10 despite outgaining the Cardinals. Utica has scored just three points this season in five trips into the red zone. The Saxons have lost a lot on offense from last season’s juggernaut but was an efficient 17-of-28 for 239 yards and a pair of touchdown with no turnovers in week one.
No. 22 Brockport (2-0, 1-0 E8) at St. John Fisher (0-2, 0-0) Things don’t look great for the Cardinals, who have lost four in a row dating to last season. Brockport on the other hand has looked like it may be the most complete team in the East Region. On the bright side for Fisher, it’s their home opener and the Courage Bowl that benefits pediatric cancer. There’s nothing like a huge crowd in get you pumped up. This program has been too good for too long not to put its best foot forward and their conference record is clean.
No. 24 Wesley (0-1, 0-0 NJAC) at TCNJ (0-2, 0-1) The Wolverines have had 16 days to stew over their opening loss to Delaware Valley but they will have to do it on the road and without senior quarterback Nick Falkenberg, who ruptured his spleen in that game and is lost for the season. Junior Khaaliq Burroughs earn the start for Wesley. Wesley has not lost back-to-back games since 2003. The Lions have lost 10 of their last 12.
Western New England (1-1) at RPI (2-0) The Engineers face a big test in WNE. The Golden Bears have won a lot of football games (30) over the past three years.
Buffalo State (1-0, 0-0 E8) at Morrisville State (1-0, 0-0) Both teams were idle last week after winning their openers. The Mustangs will be looking for their first E8 victory since 2015. It is the second of four home games to start the season. Bengal quarterback Kyle Hoppy in one nine starts that return on offense. The senior missed all of 2015 and some of last season with injury and directed a last scoring drive in a 20-19 win over Bridgewater State two weeks ago.
Alfred State (0-2) at Rochester (0-1) With a trip to the “other” Alfred (the defending E8 champ variety) loaming next week, the Yellow Jackets have a great chance of breaking an eight-game losing streak against a Pioneer team that has been outscored 79-7 this season. Despite two interceptions from Ryan Henry, Rochester fell to Carnegie Mellon 42-14 last week.
Stevenson (1-1, 1-0 MAC) at FDU-Florham (1-1, 0-1) The Mustangs bounced back from an opening game loss by putting away King’s early racing out to a 35-0 lead. Expect more of that this week as after the Devils were crushed at Widener 49-7.
Union (1-1) at Gallaudet (0-2) The Dutchmen have a chance to climb above the .500 for the first time since 2012 when they travel to D.C. this weekend.
Salisbury (1-1, 1-0 NJAC) at Kean (0-1, 0-0) The Gulls bounced back from an OT loss to Albright host their annual track meet against William Paterson on the way to a 63-7 win. The Cougars are coming off back-to-back solid seasons but didn’t show well in an opening 28-7 loss to Springfield. Kean ran just 41 plays.
Montclair State (0-1, 0-0 NJAC) at Southern Virginia (0-2, 0-2) The Knights are certainly better than last year’s 2-8 especially on offense which ranked 236th last season. The Red Hawks always have a solid defense but are they better on offense this year?
Rowan (2-0, 1-0 NJAC) at William Paterson (0-2, 0-1) The Profs haven’t been pretty on offense so far this season, but the defense sure has allowing fewer than 200 yards a contest. The Pioneers have been outscored 109-7.
Hartwick (1-1, 0-0 E8) at Cortland (1-1, 0-0) The Hawks have always been able to score points and have topped 45 in both contests but a defense that has historically given up just as many posted a shutout last week for the first time since 2002. The Red Dragons didn’t score over the final three quarters at Framingham State. Three interceptions didn’t help.
Misericordia (0-2, 0-1 MAC) at Widener (1-1, 1-0) The Cougars have given up 50-plus in each of their first two games. The Widener offense hasn’t a house of fire thus far. Yes, they scored 49 in last week’s win over FDU-Florham but three touchdowns were on defense. Both units may outscore Misericordia this Saturday.
Albright (2-0, 1-0 MAC) at Lycoming (0-2, 0-1) The Warriors offense gained just 82 yards last week and face another tough test in Albright. They’ll need one of their two quarterbacks to separate themselves to find consistency. With experience of the Albright at the skill positions, it could be another long day.
Shenandoah (2-0) at Hobart (1-1) The Statesmen bounced back with an impressive statement in shutting St. John Fisher last week 31-3 after dropping their opener to Brockport. They face a Hornet team that has outscored its first two opponents 101-28. Still it’s hard to imagine a up and coming ODAC team wandering up north to take down a program of the caliber of Hobart.