By Derek Mancini
If you were someone who after the first two weeks of the season still didn't believe the 2018 Rhody Rams are a different breed from year's past, then the last time out should have convinced you. Rhode Island went toe-to-toe with the AAC's Connecticut Huskies in an offensive shootout, falling just short in the fourth quarter by a score of 56-49. The two long-time rivals put up video game numbers, combining for 105 points and 1,123 total yards on offense.
Despite allowing a touchdown with just 57 seconds left, the Rams still had a chance to win the game. Quarterback JaJuan Lawson drove the Rams into UConn territory on the final drive, connecting with junior wide-out Aaron Parker (7 catches, 128 yards and a touchdown) on two key first down plays, including a 22-yard play on fourth-and-16. At the UConn 16-yard line, the Rams gave up a sack that helped the Huskies seal the victory.
Lawson, who won a second straight CAA Football Offensive Player of the Week honor (his third in eight career starts) continued his hot start to the season with yet another monster game. For the second game in a row, Lawson threw for more than 300 passing yards and four touchdowns. He added another 85 yards on the ground with 2 rushing scores.
Although the Rams suffered their first loss of the season, there are a lot of positives to take from the game. The offense continues to roll and come up with clutch plays, while the defense, although they struggled, caused a couple of turnovers for the third straight game. Jim Fleming's team keeps growing every week, showing a lot of heart and proving they're not scared of anyone. Remember, the Rams were losing this game 42-28 at halftime. It's impressive that even in a non-conference game, this team continued to grind and have a chance to win in the end.
Coming off the bye week, Rhody finds itself ranked in both national Top 25 polls (No. 22 in the STATS FCS Poll and No. 20 in the AFCA Coaches FCS Poll). There is no doubt this team is making strides game after game, and should make things interesting in the CAA. Yes Kingston, it's true, we have a football season. Here are some key takeaways from the game at UConn.
Coulter Becoming a Huge Piece to the Rhody Puzzle
Sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Coulter is quickly becoming exactly what Jim Fleming hoped he'd turn into, a true threat in this league. Coulter was again a big part of the Rams' success in the passing game, and is officially a guy that opposing defenses have to game plan around. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound receiver set career-highs for a second straight week, catching 10 passes for a game-high 156 receiving yards and a touchdown.
He scored a 15-yard touchdown with 1:26 in the first half that got the Rams within a touchdown behind the Huskies. In the third quarter on 2nd-and-7, Coulter broke out for a huge 47-yard catch that led to a Lawson rushing touchdown to once again get the Rams back in the game.
Over the past two games, Coulter has caught 19 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns. The Maryland native already has more receptions, yards and touchdowns this season than he had in 11 games last season.
Fleming has seen the cousin of his other star receiver, Aaron Parker, improve every week, and believes his constancy is key.
"Isaiah's been extremely consistent, he's getting better and better with his route running and his habits are becoming the kinds that are necessary for him to continue to improve," Fleming said.
With Coulter just being a sophomore, we could be looking at the future of this Rams football program.
Jones Has Breakout Game in Backfield
Junior running back Naim Jones had a breakout performance in his debut for the Rams. After redshirt junior Zoe Bryant, Jr. left the game with an injury, Jones stepped in to pick up the running game in an eye-opening way. Jones rushed for a Rhody season-high 95 yards on 11 carries. He scored his first career touchdown on a 14-yard run that tied the game 49-49 with 3:13 to go in the game. He almost scored on his first carry of the season, but the play was overturned on a review.
Jones is a transfer from Nassau Community College, where he rushed for 1,300 yards in 16 games. Fleming says they've been trying to get Jones more involved in the offense, but admits to the challenges that come with a transfer player.
"There's a lot of things you need to master in terms of schematic understanding; we knew he had talent and we really wanted to get him the ball," Fleming said of Jones.
It will be interesting to see if Jones' workload will increase as the season goes on, and how Fleming will utilize both Bryant and Jones together. Bryant has been the clear No. 1 with a team-high 36 carries. He also had been extremely productive, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. With the bevy of offensive weapons already proven in the passing game, a 1-2 punch of Bryant and Jones should scare any opposition.
Turnovers Continue to Roll In
Although it was not the best performance of the season for the defense, giving up a season-high 56 points, Rhode Island is still causing turnovers at a consistent rate. The Rams forced three turnovers, including two forced fumbles and an interception. Through three games, the Rams have seven fumble recoveries.
In the third quarter, junior defensive back Rashod Dickerson made his first career interception. It was the first interception caused by the defense this season.
The defense shouldn't be a concern going forward even with the problems they had on Saturday. The unit still had strong performances from key players, including senior Nas Jones, who had a career-high 10 tackles with 2 sacks. Expect Fleming and the coaching staff to clean up any problems they see on the defense during the bye week. That side of the ball is too talented to make what happened in Connecticut a trend.
Rhode Island senior journalism major Derek Mancini will check in throughout the season with his Tuesday Take for GoRhody.com. Before his current internship with the communications office, Mancini interned with WPRI 12. In high school, he was part of a state championship football team for North Providence in 2013.