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RMU loses opener despite strong play from defense, special teams

| Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, 6:15 p.m.

A pile of bricks sat on a table just inside the entrance of Robert Morris' locker room Saturday afternoon at Joe Walton Stadium.

The Colonials who walked past began the rebuilding of their program's confidence in earnest during a 27-24 loss to Dayton in their season opener.

Defense and special teams eased the burden on a Robert Morris offense led by true freshman quarterback Mathew Barr.

Dayton quarterback Alex Jeske's 13-yard touchdown scramble, and William Will's 37-yard field goal in the final seven minutes delivered a comeback win to the Flyers on a day when Robert Morris forced four turnovers and blocked a field goal and a punt.

“That's stuff we didn't do a year ago, so it's good to see it,” said second-year coach John Banaszak, whose team went 1-10 and finished last in the Northeast Conference in rushing defense (231.0 ypg) and average points allowed (34.3) a year ago. “We've worked pretty hard on making big plays on special teams and making big plays on defense and getting turnovers. We were last in the country in turnover margin last year, and we've got to flip that.”

Barr completed 14 of 34 attempts for 156 yards but also threw two interceptions, including a 93-yard pick-six that tied the score 10-10 with 9:04 left in the third quarter.

Robert Morris' final points came with its offense on the sideline. T.J. Waters swooped in to foil a punt at Dayton's 39, and Cole Blake scooped up the ball to start a 26-yard touchdown return with 12:53 left in the game.

“Coach B really stresses to us that special teams is just as important as offense and defense,” said Blake, a Moon graduate. “He says there are going to be a few games where special teams is going to win the game, and I think easily that could've happened today if certain things panned out the way they should've.”

A fumble recovery preceded the Colonials' best drive of the day. Defensive tackle Zack Zamiska grabbed the loose ball at Robert Morris' 30-yard line with 4:14 left in the third quarter, and a 70-yard, 12-play possession ensued. Barr's 1-yard sneak to open the fourth quarter tied the score 17-17.

“He's a freshman, and he's going to make some mistakes, but he's going to make some plays for us,” Banaszak said of Barr.

For the first time since Oct. 19, 2013, the Colonials sent an opponent to the locker room scoreless at halftime. Not since Nov. 9 of that season had Robert Morris shut a team out in consecutive quarters.

Of 44 quarters in 2014, only seven remained scoreless for Robert Morris opponents.

“We came in the locker room and said we've got to have that killer instinct and (act like) we're playing from behind,” said defensive back Ryan Richards Jr., who had two interceptions. “I feel as though we've just got to pick it up. The mental errors, all the small things — if we eliminate those, that's an easy one, I think.”

Dayton's first drive ended when a gang of Colonials stopped running back Connor Kacsor for no gain on fourth and 1 at Robert Morris' 36.

Richards drifted toward the sideline in time to jump in front of wide receiver Jack Euritt and intercept starting quarterback Blake Bir's pass at Dayton's 15-yard line with 11 minutes left in the second quarter. He returned the interception to Dayton's 3, and three plays later, Barr found tight end Nic Lamica for his first career touchdown throw, a 6-yarder.

Dayton replaced Bir with Jeske a few minutes before halftime, but the turnovers continued. Richards snagged a throw down the right sideline at Robert Morris' 5-yard line with 1:13 left in the second quarter.

And before Richards intervened with interceptions, safety Andy Smigiera broke through Dayton's line to block a 32-yard field goal attempt with 4:02 left in the first quarter.

“We're a lot better from last year,” Richards said. “We're more focused and more together as a group. The intensity is there. You could see it in the first half. We were flying around. We've just got to carry the momentum into the second half.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Bwest_Trib.

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