All season, Sacred Heart University head football coach Mark Nofri has preached to his team the importance of putting together four quarters.
On Saturday, in front of a Senior Day crowd made up of 1,336 at Campus Field, three was the limit.
“They’re a bunch of great kids,” said Nofri of his seniors. “They deserve to go out better than their record stands right now. Obviously, Senior Day, they’re always ready to play. They were pumped up for the game and I didn’t expect anything less. It’s just disappointing that we didn’t play four quarters to finish the game for the win for them.”
Taking a 17-6 advantage into the final frame, the Sacred Heart Pioneers surrendered 15 unanswered fourth quarter points as they were upended, 21-17, by Robert Morris University.
The Robert Morris Colonials struck early in the fourth quarter on their first possession.
Following a 15-yard kick catch interference penalty on Sacred Heart junior Greg Moore on a booming punt, Robert Morris drove 76 yards down the field, capping the 10-play drive when senior quarterback Jeff Sinclair hit junior tight end D.J. Pearson with a floater to the back of the end zone. A successful two-point conversion cut the Pioneer lead to 17-14.
Then, it happened – again.
For the second-straight home game, Sacred Heart blew the lead late.
On Oct. 27, against the then-No. 20 University of Albany, the Pioneers coughed up the lead with 1:38 remaining on a 40-yard run.
On Saturday, it was worse.
With 2:57 left, Sacred Heart r-senior punter Robert Shepherd stuck the Colonials on their own 18 with a 36-yard punt. Robert Morris quickly moved the ball downfield, but the drive seemed to stall on the Pioneer two-yard line.
Opting to go for the win instead of a chip shot field goal to tie the game and likely send it into overtime, Colonial head coach Joe Walton sent the play into Sinclair.
On fourth-and-one, Sinclair dropped back in play action, waited for senior fullback Nick Groat to clear the flat and head into the left corner of the end zone, and connected with a touchdown lob for the winning score.
“It just came down to making plays at the end,” said Sacred Heart senior outside linebacker and tri-captain Niko Sierra, “and they just made one more play than we did. We got mixed up with the coverage and then we left a guy open and they found him. Sometimes they don’t, but they found him this time.”
For Groat, a four-year contributor, it was his first-career touchdown reception. Sinclair, the winning play-caller despite throwing four picks, extended his program record of most career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.
For the 21 graduating Pioneer seniors who were honored with their parents before kick-off, the loss was an unfortunate microcosm of their final campaign.
“Honestly,” said r-senior defensive lineman and tri-captain Tyler Foehr, “I feel like, as a captain, as a fifth year, we let the fans down this year. That’s not how we wanted to finish. We wanted to come out today and ball out. Obviously, it’s the way things have been going. I don’t know what it is.”
Foehr, who came into the game ranked 23rd in the nation in sacks, failed to record one. However, Sacred Heart sacked Sinclair four times, led by junior linebacker Justin Sexton, who had 1.5.
Offensively, the Pioneers were led by sophomore running back Keshaudas Spence, who rumbled for 113 yards on 21 carries, his third 100-yard tally of the year. R-junior quarterback Luke Wischnowski, making his fourth start of the season, finished 14-33 passing with one touchdown and two interceptions. Senior wide receiver and tri-captain Rock Tate caught a game-high four passes in his final home game.
“I think we were all pretty excited,” said Tate. “It was a lot of nerves, actually, coming from me personally. I don’t usually get nervous before games, but it was something different just because I know I am never going to step on this field again.”
Sacred Heart struck first when, late in the first quarter, Wischnowski hit sophomore fullback Pat Casey from 4-yards out. Sophomore kicker Connor Frizzell put the Pioneers up 10-0 with an 18-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
Robert Morris responded with two field goals from senior kicker Greg Langer, but Sacred Heart r-sophomore cornerback J.D. Roussel picked off Sinclair midway through the third quarter and returned it 14 yards to pay dirt for his second pick-six of the year and the 17-6 advantage.
After holding the Colonials to 81 yards of total offense in the first three quarters, the Pioneers were torched for 189 in the fourth.
“I think we played very well the first three quarters,” said Foehr. “Then, the fourth quarter, they started to figure it out and they hit us. They played better than we did.”
Whereas, the Sacred Heart offense, who put up 211 yards of total offense in the first half, was held to just 87 in the second.
“Complacency,” explained Tate. “We think we’re all set in the first half…and we just don’t adjust to what they’re doing on defense. We got complacent is, basically, the only thing I can say.”
The loss keeps the Pioneers in the cellar of the NEC with a 1-6 conference record (2-8 overall) and moves Robert Morris to a tie for fifth with a 3-4 conference record (4-6 overall).
For 21 gridiron gladiators, their days in Pioneer red and white will come to an end in Loretto, Pa. after Sacred Heart battles Saint Francis University at noon on Saturday.
“I really don’t want to think about it, to tell you the truth,” confessed Sierra. “It’s definitely fluttered my mind, but I try to not think about it and…come back to practice and get ready to work.”