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college football Pioneers happy to be home

October 4, 2018

Salaam Horne is tired of long bus rides and having to bounce in and out of hotels on the weekends. In other words, he’s ready to get back home.

For Horne, a sophomore defensive back, and the rest of the Sacred Heart University football team, Saturday’s homecoming game against Penn (3 p.m. kickoff) is one they’ve been anxiously awaiting. It’s the Pioneers’ first home game in more than a month.

“You’re on a bus for four to five hours and then you have to sleep in a hotel bed. It’s just difficult,” Horne said Wednesday. “But when you’re here, you get to sleep in your own bed, that you sleep in every day. It’s just a normal day for us when we’re at home. We’re going to feel good.”

Whether those good feelings will carry into next week will largely depend on how the Pioneers (3-1) fare in their first-ever meeting against Penn. The Quakers, picked tied for fourth in the Ivy League preseason poll, are 2-1 and represent arguably Sacred Heart’s toughest test yet this season.

“Penn has a good program. They have a good program every year,” said Horne, who leads the Pioneers with 28 tackles. “We want to eventually get to where they are. It’s going to be a good test to match up against them to see if we’re a really good football team or not.”

Last week, a 43-24 loss to Cornell, represented Sacred Heart’s first hiccup of 2018. Operating without No. 1 receiver Andrew O’Neill, the Pioneers’ offense was mostly stagnant early, producing only 10 first-half points. Meanwhile, their defense was gutted for 36 points in the first two quarters — more than they had allowed over their first three games combined.

Head coach Mark Nofri said Wednesday the struggles on defense were the result of players failing to communicate and not playing with an “edge or grit like we have the first three weeks.” Horne, a starter at free safety, insisted it was an extension of a lackluster week of practice, among other things.

“We were undefeated and had no losses,” Horne said. “I kind of thought our team mindset coming in was just like, ‘We’re just going to come in and win this game.’ Cornell came out swinging and we just never got it going.”

And the Pioneers never recovered.

“It was really our first adversity that we’ve faced besides Bucknell (in a 30-14 win on Sept. 8), really being down and having to dig ourselves out of a hole,” added senior quarterback Kevin Duke. “I’d go over to the sidelines and say, ‘Hey, the first rule of holes is to stop digging. Let’s figure out a way to get out of this, and let’s communicate and try to take a step forward.’ ”

The Pioneers, who have seen losses snowball in recent seasons, don’t want to repeat history. They’re eager to move on, albeit against the meat of their schedule. Their four October opponents — Penn, Dartmouth and Northeast Conference foes Central Connecticut State and Bryant — are a combined 10-4 at the moment.

How will these Pioneers respond to their first taste of adversity?

“Good teams know how to put it behind them, and focus on the task at hand,” Nofri said in an email.

There’s a chance the Pioneers return home incomplete, much like they were against Cornell. O’Neill, who leads the Pioneers with 16 receptions for 201 yards, will be a game-time decision as he recovers from a hand injury, Nofri said.

For obvious reasons, Duke misses having O’Neill alongside him on game days. And playing at home, he misses that as well.

“I think we were able to find ourselves and figure out what type of team we were and we are and we’re going to be,” Duke said, following a stretch that included three road games and a bye. “I think that was good in that sense. But it’s always a good feeling when you’re practicing during the week and you don’t have to worry about travel and when you have to leave. You can just focus on the task at hand, and then sleep in your own bed the night before the game, which is always nice.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour

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