#18 Football Defeats Robert Morris, Wins NEC Championship

Trevi Alickolli, Assistant Sports Editor

The Central Connecticut football team has a strict 24-hour rule under first-year head coach Ryan McCarthy. They are allowed to celebrate a win for 24 hours, then they’re on to the next opponent. But this was no typical win for Central.

The Blue Devils have a little more to celebrate this week, compared to others. After beating Robert Morris University 49-28 on senior night, Central won the 2019 Northeast Conference Championship for the second time in three years, set a school record with 10 regular-season wins and clinched their automatic bid into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Central is now 10-1 overall on the season and remains undefeated in the conference (6-0). This is the first time in program history the team has reached double digit wins in a season.

“It’s mind-blowing,” quarterback Aaron Winchester said. “I really can’t describe it right now. I’ve never been a conference champion. It’s great, I’m just so happy.”

McCarthy said he is happy to win the conference but did not envision this when he first took the head coaching position.

“I wish I can tell you that I knew all along this would happen but I didn’t,” McCarthy said. “To be honest, I envisioned it going one day at a time because being a first-year head coach I didn’t know what to expect. This is all new to me but I’m happy for the kids, the staff and administration.”

For senior cornerback Tajik Bagley, winning championships is a complete turnaround from when he joined the program.

“When I started here, we were 2-9,” Bagley said. “I tried to build a tradition, a culture and I think it’s really changing here [at CCSU].

He said the Blue Devil’s tradition is all about playing physical, being poised and playing for each other as a brotherhood.

Bagley and the defense were key against the Colonials, holding them to under 250 total yards and forcing four turnovers, three picks and one forced fumble.

Fellow cornerback Dexter Lawson had a career day, catching two of the team’s three interceptions.

“[This is] everything we’ve been working for since summer,” Lawson said. “This is a statement win. Everybody was doubting us, making it seem like we were playing cupcake teams but every team that comes out here, they feel us and they know what they’re going to get.”

Safety Jahlil Brown caught the other interception for the Blue Devils. Brown also recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the third quarter, giving his team momentum after a sluggish first half.

“This game meant a lot to me,” Brown said. “I just lost my little cousin three days ago so I just wanted to go out there and make some plays for him, which I did. That game was dedicated to him.”

Brown was second on the team with seven tackles behind linebacker Foday Jalloh (8), he added a pass breakup.

“To play with that on your heart and to play as well as he did shows just what kind of player he is and what type of dedication he has,” Winchester said. “He put his heart and soul into this team and I’m so happy he was able to have success today.”

The defense looked strong, but that is nothing new for them this season.

“The defense has obviously been very, very good all year long,” McCarthy said. “And today was no different, they set the tone.”

Offensively, the game plan was to establish the run against freezing conditions and a defense allowing only 155.5 yards per game. The Blue Devils more than doubled RMU’s allowed average, rushing for 389 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two of their top running backs.

Running backs Danley Exilhomme and Enyce Walker stepped into featured roles on Saturday.

Exilhomme ran the ball 26 times for 185 yards, Walker rushed 10 times for 90 yards and a touchdown. Winchester added an additional 91 yards and four touchdowns.

“I thought Danley played outstanding, he was outstanding,” Winchester said. “And [Walker] came in and changed up the pace.”

“The whole day I was thinking ‘team, team, team.’ I just wanted to help my team win today,” Exilhomme said. “We a running back by committee so next man up is always ready.”

Their success did not shock McCarthy.

“We put as much focus on our twos and threes as we do on our ones so it shouldn’t come as a surprise,” McCarthy said. “Danley Exilhomme has been a constant all year long and with Keonte [Lucas] and Aaron [Dawson] being out, he and [Walker] had to step up and they did that.”

Wide receiver Tyshaun James also caught a touchdown pass. He finished the game with four catches for 72 yards.

Central won by three possessions but going into halftime, they were tied with the Colonials, who were also undefeated in the NEC before Saturday.

“We just kept our focus going into the second half,” Lawson said. “The coaching staff made adjustments and we kept the mindset that it was 0-0.”

“We started to open up in the second half,” McCarthy said. “A lot of that was a run/pass option type of scheme which fits into what Aaron [Winchester] does very well.”

The Blue Devils scored 35 points in the second half while holding RMU to only 14.

Central closes out their regular season on the road against Duquesne University on Saturday, Nov. 23. McCarthy said his team has been waiting for this matchup after the way last season concluded.

“Duquesne is the first game that our kids see when they look at the schedule,” McCarthy said. “So I don’t think I’ll have any problem getting them up for this one.”

Winchester was not with Central when Duquesne spoiled their hopes of a conference title last season but can feel the intensity of the rivalry this week.

“Tyshaun [James] sent us a video of them beating us on this field last year and that didn’t sit right with me,” Winchester said. “I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be a little extra [motivation] this week.”