(STATS) - The adage in sports is that wins are great but championships are what everyone remembers. Well, Duquesne had amassed a fair share of wins in recent years, but finally reached the FCS playoffs this season.
No Northeast Conference team experienced more success than the Dukes from 2010-14, going 34-22 overall with a 21-15 record in conference play to tie Wagner for the best mark during that span. Included in those seasons was a share of the conference title in 2011 and 2013, but they failed to advance to an FCS playoff game both times by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker.
Titles were not uncommon for Duquesne, which won 14 as a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference before making the move to the Northeast in 2008.
That first NEC championship was hanging in the balance when the Dukes hosted Keystone State rival Saint Francis on Nov. 21 in a winner-take-all "title game" to close the regular season.
The Dukes spotted the Red Flash a 14-point lead before scoring the next 30 points en route to a 30-20 victory and their first FCS playoff berth. Rafiq Douglas ran for three touchdowns and finished with 165 yards on 28 carries for the Dukes.
"To do this for our program, this group, and get us over the hump with the outright title and going to the playoffs, is just phenomenal," coach Jerry Schmitt said after the win. "I'm proud of them, I'm happy for them, but there's been a lot of people and a lot of players before this that built it up to this."
While the Dukes were unable to notch the NEC's first playoff win since Wagner in 2012, they acquitted themselves very well against William & Mary before coming up just short in a 52-49 loss.
"The fact that we can battle this team right down to the wire shows where our conference is going and where our program has gone the last couple years," Schmitt said.
The national exposure received by the team - and junior quarterback Dillon Buechel in particular - should prove a huge benefit going forward. Buechel set career highs in completions (33), attempts (53), yards (423) and touchdowns (six) in the playoff loss to cap a strong season.
CALLING IT A CAREER: Sacred Heart receiver Tyler Dube put an exclamation mark on a very impressive four seasons for the Pioneers. He led the conference with 1,160 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns, and was second with a school-record 71 receptions. A STATS FCS second-team All-American, Dube finished fourth in NEC history in catches (224) and second in receiving yards (3,206) and TDs (36).
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Bryant running back Ricardo McCray improved every season, and to nobody's surprise, capped his Bulldogs career with a stellar 2015. He led the league in rushing yards (1,270), all-purpose yards (1,622) and yards per carry (6.3). McCray recorded seven 100-yard games and set a career high with 182 against Sacred Heart on Nov. 14. He finished seventh in the FCS with 115.5 yards per game.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Yeah, we'll call it a comeback. After missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL, Duquesne linebacker Christian Kuntz returned to play all 12 games and made 23 tackles for loss in the regular season, the sixth-highest total in league history. He averaged 5.9 tackles per game, was second in the conference with eight sacks and led the league with four interceptions.
SURPRISE OF THE YEAR: After a miserable 1-10 season in 2014, Robert Morris moved back to respectability with four wins in John Banaszak's second season in charge. While the first three victories came against Division II Notre Dame College, Wagner (1-10) and East Tennessee State (2-9), the last one was a 21-20 upset of Bryant, which finished tied for third in the NEC. The Colonials had a dramatic turnaround on defense, limiting opponents to 21.6 points per game after giving up 34.2 the previous season.
DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR: There figured to be some growing pains under first-year coach Jason Houghtaling, but nobody expected a 1-10 record for a Wagner team that won seven games and captured a share of the NEC's regular-season title in 2014. Although the Seahawks were playing their first season in 35 years without Walt Hameline, they were picked to finish fourth in the NEC preseason coaches' poll. A very challenging schedule surely didn't help as Wagner faced two FCS schools (Rice and BYU) and suffered losses by 43 and 64 points, respectively.
BY THE NUMBERS:
1 - Number of times in the last six seasons that the preseason favorite captured the NEC's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.
1.08 - Duquesne's turnover margin average - tied for fifth in the FCS.
3 - Consecutive winning seasons for Sacred Heart following four straight losing campaigns.
5.7 - Average yards per carry for CCSU's Cameron Nash - the best mark by a Blue Devils player with at least 20 carries since 2009.
8.3 - Robert Morris' scoring average in conference games - the lowest by any FCS team this season.
21 - Wins for Saint Francis from 2012-2015. The Red Flash won 20 games the previous 12 seasons.
36.1 - Points allowed per game by Wagner - the most in the conference since CCSU (38.1) in 2012.
3,254 - Career rushing yards for Saint Francis' Khari Dickson - the 12th-best mark in NEC history.
NEXT YEAR: Duquesne would seem to be the obvious choice as next season's preseason favorite with both Buechel and Kuntz - the offensive and defensive anchors - returning. Douglas also is coming back for the Dukes, but replacing Chris King's league-leading 81 catches, 1,136 yards and eight TDs will be a challenge. Saint Francis could be the next team to break through for its first playoff appearance after posting its first six-win season since 1992.