College football returns to Rhode Island in a big way Saturday. Brown launches its 138th season at home against Bryant. Rhode Island plays its home opener against Harvard, the 2014 Ivy League champion. Salve Regina, the state’s Division III entry, hosts Castleton University from Vermont.
The days when college football was a Saturday ritual in New England, and stories of games dominated the Sunday newspapers, are long gone. So is coverage by many of those papers. Attendance is down. Old alums are dead. Middle-aged alums have careers and families. Young alums have moved away. Students catch big-time games on television. Soccer, not football, is king among kids. And the National Football League lords over all.
But Saturdays in late summer and fall still remind me of college football. Dark green grass marked with crisp white lines. School names painted in the end zones and school or conference logos painted on the field. Wisps of smoke rising from tailgate grills and the aroma of charred sausage hanging in the air. The URI band warming up beside the old grandstand at Meade Stadium, and the Brown band dashing to midfield from shrubbery behind the east end zone. Players emerging from locker rooms and tunnels and running on the field. Coaches adjusting headsets and trying to stay calm. Trainers checking their supplies for tape, wraps and ice. Managers filling water bottles. Captains and officials gathered at the 50 for the coin toss. Special teams lined up for the opening kickoff.
Three hours later, it’s all over, cheers celebrating the winners and tears consoling the losers. Then we wait to do it all over again the following week. But that’s jumping ahead. Here is what’s on tap this week.
BRYANT AT BROWN
The Bears, 5-5 last year, are experienced enough on offense to score. Whether an inexperienced defense can keep opponents out of the end zone is the big question. Fifth-year quarterback Marcus Fuller passed for 2,618 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. All-Ivy Brian Strachan caught 56 passes for 688 yards.. Andrew Coke, the leading rusher with 516 yards, is back. Senior John Heile, a center and tri-captain, anchors the offensive line. Senior Grant Senne connected on all 29 PAT attempts in 2014.
The defense is counting on a pair of new starting inside linebackers, senior Will Twyman and junior Max Tylki, and new starting defensive backs Will Quigley and Jordan Ferguson to develop quickly to support a line that features three returning starters, tackle Zach Sparber, end Robert Hughes and tackle Jacob Walther.
The Bulldogs opened with a 27-3 victory over Division II American International two weeks ago. Ryan Ferguson made his career high of 12 tackles and helped hold AIC to 206 yards. Quarterback Dalton Easton passed for 122 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Ricardo McCray of Middletown rushed for 112 yards.
This is the second meeting of the Bears and Bulldogs. Brown won the inaugural, 41-14, two years ago in Smithfield when the Bears scored the last 27 points. It will be a different story on Saturday as Bryant runs and throws against that untested defense.
The Pick: Bryant.
HARVARD AT URI
This three-game, home and home series is a coup for URI AD Thorr Bjorn because Harvard is, well, Harvard. The oldest university in the nation with a rich football history and a classic stadium on the banks of the Charles River. Oh, Harvard, kicking off its season this weekend, is the 2014 Ivy League champion, is picked to finish first again and is ranked No. 25 without having played a down; has 16 Ivy football titles; has won 14 games in a row, second in Division I to Ohio State’s 15-game winning streak; is 12-2 in its last 14 season openers, and is 24-3-2 against current Colonial Athletic Association teams.
URI is 0-2, has lost 17 of its last 18 games, has been outscored 82-7 this season, is averaging only 182 yards total offense and has more turnovers, 10, than points, 7. This could be a long afternoon for the Rams.
URI and Harvard have played once. The Crimson won, 35-0, in 1923 at Harvard Stadium. They might repeat that score at Meade Stadium.
The Pick: Harvard
CASTLETON AT SALVE REGINA
Both teams are coming off season-opening victories followed by a week off. Castelton defeated Plymouth State, 21-10, without allowing a touchdown by the offense. Salve Regina rallied for a 41-28 victory over Worcester State. The Seahawks trailed three times before outscoring the Lancers 21-6 in the second half. Junior quarterback Brandon Scott, a transfer from Southern Connecticut, passed for 322 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first start.
The pick: Salve Regina
FLORIDA STATE AT BOSTON COLLEGE
The Eagles embarrassed Howard, 76-0, last week in a mismatch that both coaches agreed to shorten by invoking the mercy rule. What was the point of scoring more points? That won’t be the case Friday night when No. 9 Florida State visits The Heights. The Seminoles Dalvin Cook rumbled for 266 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-14 win over South Florida.
The Pick: Florida State
NORTHWESTERN AT DUKE
We used to joke that this was the SAT Bowl because of their academic reputations. No more joking. Northwestern in ranked No. 23, and Duke has played wining football lately.
The Pick: Northwestern