For The Tribune-Democrat
St. Francis is fresh off a 28-10 homecoming win against Sacred Heart last week, but the full attention of the Red Flash is pointing forward to Duquesne tonight. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:10 p.m. on the Bluff.
With the Dukes (4-3, 2-1) tied for first in the NEC with Bryant and the Flash just a half-game back, today’s contest takes on importance even with a month left in the season.
“It’s going to be a great matchup, a heavyweight fight,” St. Francis coach Chris Villarrial said. “They’re doing an excellent job. They have a quarterback that’s completing the ball and they’re catching the ball.”
That quarterback is freshman Dillon Buechel, a recent addition to the Jerry Rice Award watch list for the top FCS first-year player. If that sounds familiar, St. Francis just faced another Jerry Rice Award candidate in Sacred Heart freshman quarterback R.J. Noel. The Flash defense performed well against him in limiting Noel to 94 yards passing on 16 completions with an interception.
Buechel has thrown for 1,750 yards and nine TDs in his first seven collegiate games. He ranks 19th nationally and first in the NEC in passing yards per game, averaging 250 yards. Wide receiver Gianni Carter is his primary target, ranking second in the NEC in receptions and receiving yards. He has 38 catches for 524 yards and five touchdowns.
Duquesne leads the NEC with 255.4 passing yards per game. St. Francis is allowing a league-low 158.3 passing yards per game as part of the 21st best defense in the NCAA. Sophomore DaQuan Minter made his NCAA-best fifth interception of the season last week. The Flash are fifth in the nation in passing defense.
“The defense needs to do what we do and be physical,” senior safety Jake DeMedal said. “That’s been our identity all year.”
On the other side of the ball, the Dukes lead the NEC and are seventh in the nation in first downs allowed with 119. The variety of looks St. Francis threw at Sacred Heart last week could serve the Flash well today in trying to penetrate such a stout defense.
“They’ve got a pretty solid defense,” sophomore receiver Anthony Abeid said. “What they do is win their matchups one-on-one, whether it be their linemen, linebackers, safeties or corners. They do really well in winning their matchup.”
Stopping Kyle Harbridge has been a tough matchup for any defense so far in 2013. After a 190-yard performance last week against a tough Sacred Heart defense, Harbridge expanded his national lead in rushing yards per game. He now averages 173.7 yards in each contest.
Aaron Reed and Christian Kuntz lead the Dukes in tackles. Kuntz leads the team with four sacks and 11 TFLs. Duquesne also sports a Buck Buchanan Award watch list member in Dorian Bell.
The third-year transfer from Ohio State is sixth on the team in tackles with 35.
“It’ll be a big challenge for our offensive line and tight ends in blocking them,” Villarrial said.
The Dukes have won three in a row in the series including last year’s 24-21 victory. The game kicks off at 6:10 p.m.