By Spencer Kowitz
Special to College Sports Journal
MOON TOWNSHIP, PA. — The Robert Morris University football team ended the 2015 season on a positive note as the Colonials upset Bryant, 21-20, in Northeast Conference action on a mostly cloudy Saturday afternoon at Joe Walton Stadium.
RMU held the lead from late in the second quarter to the end of the contest as it withheld a late Bryant charge and was able to run out the clock on its final drive.
The Colonials used an all-around effort, including a strong performance on special teams, to claim the win over the league’s preseason favorite.
The Colonials compiled four sacks on the afternoon, which helped them keep the Bulldogs 75 yards below their season average for total offense.
The four quarterback takedowns also allowed RMU to tie its single-season program in that category as Robert Morris finished 2015 with 34 sacks. Bryant entered the day fifth nationally in fewest sacks allowed and had only yielded one in its first five league games of the season.
True freshman Mathew Barr ended his rookie campaign with a highly efficient afternoon as he completed 13-of-16 passes without turning the ball over or getting sacked. His 81% completion mark tied the single-game school record, which has stood since 2000, and is the best such mark by a NEC athlete in over two years (min. 10 attempts).
True freshman Warren Robinson used a big return to move into the record book Saturday, an impressive feat considering the Bulldogs entered Saturday leading the nation in punt return defense.
His 67 punt return yards, on just one credited return, helped him break the single-season program record for punt return average at 18.2 yards per return. Robinson, who also caught a season-high four passes against the Bulldogs, finished second in overall punt return yardage in RMU single-season annals (291).
The RMU kickoff coverage unit had the challenge of dealing with Bryant returner Jose Depadua, who entered the day second nationally in kick return average.
However, the Colonials limited him to a 16-yard average on three returns, a mark which was less than half of his season average. Robert Morris entered the day leading the nation in kick return defense and reset the school record in this category (14.72 yards/return) with Saturday’s performance.
Bryant received the opening kickoff and put together its best drive of the day as it used 11 plays to drive for a score. RMU may have stopped the drive in Bulldog territory, but a pass interference penalty on the Colonials extended the possession and allowed Bryant to eventually score on a 7-yard rush.
Each of the game’s next three drives ended in a punt without any first downs being registered.
Bryant then used an 11-play drive to reach the red zone, and the Bulldogs soon had first-and-goal. RMU was able to keep the guests out of the end zone, though, aided in part by a pass breakup by redshirt senior captain Mike Stojkovic on third down. A subsequent field goal attempt by the Bulldogs early in the second quarter was blocked by junior weak safety Andy Smigiera.
RMU used the momentum from the block to put together its longest scoring drive of the season as it used 16 plays to travel 88 yards.
Barr was flawless on the possession as he was 6-for-6 for 50 yards while completing passes to four different receivers. He also rushed for 18 yards on the sequence, including a 4-yard touchdown to cap the drive on third-and-goal.
Bryant attempted a fake punt on the next drive as it tried to rush for a first down, but redshirt junior cornerback Marcelis Branch notched a huge solo takedown two yards shy of the sticks.
Robert Morris needed just four plays to take the lead as Barr hit redshirt freshman Kyle Buss for a 36-yard completion to move the ball into the red zone.
Sophomore Rameses Owens did the rest as he rushed for 20 yards on the next three plays, including a 13-yard touchdown, to push RMU on top.
Robert Morris forced Bryant to punt from its own territory on the game’s next drive, essentially ending the first half.
RMU reached Bryant’s side of the field before punting to open the second half. The Bulldogs also booted the ball away on their opening possession of the half.
The Colonials picked up a first down on their next drive but then fumbled the ball away.
Despite Bryant having golden field position, the RMU defense held firm.
The Colonials forced two incomplete passes on the sequence, in part due to a pair of quarterback hurries. The Bulldogs would then attempt a field goal attempt that fell short.
Each team punted on its next possession without recording a first down, sending the game into the fourth quarter.
Robert Morris drove into Bryant territory on its next drive, but a 40-yard field goal clanged off the right upright and bounced back toward the field.
RMU did not allow any yards on Bryant’s next drive, forcing a punt. Robinson returned the ensuing boot 58 yards, all the way to the Bryant 10-yard line.
The Colonials took advantage of the big play on special teams as sophomore Cole Blake punched in a rush from nine yards to double the RMU lead.
Robert Morris again allowed no yards to Bryant on the Bulldogs’ next drive, forcing another punt.
The Colonials then turned the ball over on downs in their own territory, and Bryant promptly took advantage as it scored on a long touchdown pass on the game’s next play.
RMU punted on its next drive, and Bryant would take over possession in Colonial territory after a 16-yard return. The Bulldogs the field position to their benefit as they soon scored with an 18-yard pass, but the subsequent extra point sailed wide.
Bryant attempted an onside kick, but Blake fell on top of it, so the Bulldogs had no chance at a recovery. The local product then essentially ended the proceedings when he rushed for 25 yards on 3rd-and-11, which allowed RMU to assume the victory formation.
Saturday marked the second straight game in which RMU did not allow a sack, marking the first time since 2010 that the Colonials went back-to-back games without yielding a quarterback takedown.
Buss caught a game-high tying five passes for 67 yards. He became just the third Colonial to catch 50 passes in a season as well as the third to surpass 700 receiving yards in a campaign.
Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Zack Zamiska tied his career high of eight tackles and also posted a career best 2.0 sacks on the day.Stojkovic concluded his career with 193 tackles in 26 games as a Colonial.
Robinson’s 58-yard punt return stands as the third longest in RMU history. The rookie, who entered Saturday third in the FCS in punt return average, now owns two of the three longest punt returns in Colonial history.
Barr now owns two of the top four single-game completion percentages in program history as he completed 78% of his attempts in the Homecoming victory earlier this season.
Blake (76) and Owens (64) combined for 140 rushing yards while the latter became the 10th Colonial to surpass 1,000 career rushing yards Saturday.
Junior Connor Shennan averaged 42.5 yards on six punts, including downing two inside the 20.
Redshirt freshman Marquis Robinson recovered a fumble on special teams for the second time this season after he stripped the ball free on a punt return.
The blocked field goal by Smigiera represented his third blocked kick of the season, which allowed him to break the RMU single-season record. He also added a team best 10 tackles, which tied his career high.
Smigiera and company helped hold Bryant more than 80 yards below its season average for passing yards.
The Robert Morris defense finished the season with 85 tackles for loss, tied for the second-highest figure in program history. It also allowed a touchdown to the opposition only 43.2% of the time when its opponent reached the red zone, the best such mark by a Colonial team since 2008.
Robert Morris finished with 369 punt return yards as a team in 2015, its second most in program history.
Redshirt senior center Nick Faraci started at center Saturday. In doing so, he started all 44 games possible after redshirting his true freshman season.