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SHU football looks to rebound after rout

September 21, 2017

Baseball pitchers can be unpredictable, especially when their fastball doesn’t pop or their command is lacking.

So, too, can be life on the road for a college football team.

“It’s like a pitcher,” Sacred Heart coach Mark Nofri said Wednesday when asked to assess his team’s first loss, a 45-7 thumping at Stony Brook. “Sometimes you’re on your game and sometimes you’re not.”

The Pioneers had hoped to ride the momentum from convincing wins over Stetson and Lafayette to begin the season, but a litany of mistakes — including a blocked punt for a touchdown and an interception thrown by Kevin Duke — put them in a 28-point hole at halftime. Their lone points came on a 1-yard run by Ose Imeokparia late in the first quarter.

“Last week we just kept digging and kept digging,” Duke said. “We were just getting deeper and deeper, and we couldn’t get out.”

Duke was back in the film room Sunday, looking for answers to what went wrong in what was only his third career start (14-27, 115 passing yards, two interceptions).

“Even Saturday night I was up late just thinking about it,” he said. “It’s tough to sleep with a bad conscience. I’m just trying to come back out here this week and really execute.”

Duke will get a chance to redeem himself when the Pioneers (2-1) conclude their three-game road swing against non-conference opponents with a trip to Bucknell on Saturday. The Bison lost 30-9 to William & Mary last week to fall to 1-2.

“Three road games, all at night, too,” Nofri said. “It’s tough, but a lot of teams do it. We can’t let it affect what we’re going to do.”

Football’s about adjusting on the fly, which is what the Pioneers offense had to do after graduating RJ Noel, a four-year starter at quarterback. Nofri knew there’d be some growing pains in having to replace a player of Noel’s caliber, but he’s been pleased with Duke’s progression. The Pioneers racked up 80 points and almost 1,000 yards on offense over the first two weeks.

“The offense was cruising under him,” Nofri said. “They’ve responded to his leadership and his ability to make plays. He’s a great kid. People really look up to him.”

By now, Duke is used to everything that comes with playing quarterback, including pain.

“It’s funny, you don’t play for a couple years and all of a sudden you start getting hit again,” Duke said. “That first weekend is rough. It feels like you got hit by a train. Now, the second game, it moves down to a tow truck. The third game it happens to just be a small car. My body’s definitely getting used to it. You still feel it.

“But I love it, man. The body craves contact.”

While the Pioneers are in relatively good shape on offense, undisclosed injuries to safeties Timmy Johnson and Matt Ilalio have left them thin in the secondary. Nofri said both players are questionable to return this week.

The Pioneers will return home Sept. 30 to kick off Northeast Conference play against Central Connecticut State.

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour

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