The Northeast Conference will conduct its first-ever football championship game Sunday on ESPN3 to determine its auto-bid for the FCS playoffs. The winner is assured a spot in the 16-team spring postseason bracket, with the field unveiled on April 18.
While it’s a brand-new set-up to determine the NEC champion, the conference’s usual suspects are in contention as Sacred Heart heads back to Pittsburgh for a rematch with No. 25 Duquesne. The pair met in the spring season opener on March 7 as Duquesne triumphed 30-27 to start its path to a 4-0 regular-season record.
Neither program should be overlooked by squads from “multi-bid” leagues. In their 2018 playoff appearance, the Dukes upset the CAA’s Towson on the road. Sacred Heart made waves of its own when it took down then-No. 24 Delaware in Newark during the 2014 regular season. Duquesne’s and SHU’s head coaches in those wins, Jerry Schmitt and Mark Nofri, respectively, remain at their posts today. Now in his 16th season on The Bluff, Schmitt became Duquesne’s all-time winningest coach in 2019 by surpassing Greg Gattuso. A Dukes win on Sunday would be Duquesne’s 200th victory in 28 seasons at the FCS level.
Standing (or rushing) in their way is Sacred Heart’s phenom tailback Julius Chestnut, whose mammoth 181.3 rushing yards per game is good for first nationwide by a healthy margin. In the March 7 Pioneers loss at Duquesne, Chestnut still made his presence felt, recording 168 yards with four total touchdowns. His dominance has propelled SHU (2-1) to its status as the NEC’s leader in scoring offense (29.3 points per game) and in total offense (435 yards per game).
Duquesne, however, has taken six straight from the Pioneers in the all-time series. It counters Chestnut’s attack with a defense ranked eighth nationally in scoring defense (13.5 points per game). That figure ties Patriot League favorite Holy Cross’s mark and is ahead of MVFC heavyweights North Dakota State and South Dakota State on the national leaderboard.
It has the proven firepower with Chestnut, but in order to overcome Duquesne’s staunch defense in the rematch, Sacred Heart needs to be tighter in its own defense as a prerequisite. The Pioneers committed 125 penalty yards and allowed Duquesne to convert a remarkable 10 of 15 third downs in their season-opening loss. Another Sunday of cutting the Dukes’ offense that much slack would spell trouble working against a Duquesne defense that doesn’t relent much yardage to any NEC challenger not named Chestnut.
Duquesne is favored -2.5 (via BetMGM) ahead of Sunday’s 2:00 PM ET kickoff at DU’s Rooney Field.