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Coaches, players and staff members with the URI football team pose for the official team photo last week.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — For the first time in 17 years, the University of Rhode Island football team will open the season with a conference game. The Rams visit Colonial Athletic Association foe Delaware tonight.

For a year marked by high expectations and high stakes, it’s good timing.

“When you look at a conference opponent, you have to be at championship level,” head coach Jim Fleming said. “We can’t afford the early-season warm-up mistakes – substitution errors, stupid penalties. Our kids are responding to the challenge. We’ve got to be ready to play championship football on the first Thursday of the season.”

The Rams last opened with a conference game when they were in a different conference. The 2001 campaign also started at Delaware. The Blue Hens and Rams were both members of the Atlantic 10’s now-defunct football league.

Since then, URI has opened against fellow Division I Football Championship Subdivision members nine times. More recently, openers have been matchups against D-I Football Bowl Subdivision teams like Syracuse, Marshall, Kansas and Central Michigan. Though the Rams nearly beat Central Michigan last year, those games are largely about the financial aspect. FBS teams pay big money for FCS teams to come to town in an early-season tuneup.

This year, URI’s money game comes with a different flair as the Rams renew an old rivalry with Connecticut Sept. 15. For week one, there’s no check to be cashed – just a crucial game to be won.

“I think it’s been a huge motivator,” Fleming said. “Every year, you go into the game called the money game. As a coach, you’re trying to win every game, but you know when you go in against Central Michigan, Marshall or UConn this year, you’re probably down 17 scholarships compared to what those guys have.”

The matchup with Delaware comes as the Rams once again take aim at finding the fruits of their rebuilding labors. They’ve checked a few boxes the past few years. Highly ranked recruiting classes have enhanced the talent level. Last year, it started to show, as three of URI’s eight losses were by a total of seven points, the difference between a 3-8 record and a 6-5 mark.

But a true breakthrough hasn’t yet happened.

“There is an important piece for our fan base and the people that are supportive of us – we were very close to being a winning football team last year, and it was really our own shortcomings that prevented us from doing it,” Fleming said. “This year, we’ve got to go out and operate on all cylinders, get that first win and then get ourselves to a winning season. I think all things are possible with this group.”

The Rams have reason to believe. They return a host of starters on both sides of the ball, including quarterback JaJuan Lawson, all-conference wide receiver Aaron Parker and all-conference defensive lineman Brandon Ginnetti. The offensive line has more size and depth than recent years, the receiving corps is talented, and every defensive unit features significant experience.

“I feel it. Everyone else feels it,” Ginnetti said. “I think if everyone comes to watch us, they’ll see what we’re all about this year. We mean business.”

The Rams hope to align their experience and talent with what they’ve learned about winning by coming close the last few years. There are concrete areas they’ve focused on, like turnovers, penalties and finishing strong late in games.

“I think the time for last year was in the off-season and in our preparation for spring practice – identifying the areas we need to be better, offensively, defensively and special teams,” Fleming said. “Refine that in the spring. Refine that again in the summer. Now we’ve got to do a final refinement, taking exactly what we’ve put in and be prepared to play great football at Delaware in all three phases.”

The Blue Hens won’t make it easy. URI won its last meeting against them in 2015, but Delaware has changed coaches since then and appears poised for big things after a 7-4 season last year. The CAA preseason poll has the Blue Hens rated third. They’re ranked 15th nationally in the STATS FCS Top 25.

Like the Rams, they’re embracing the unusual start.

“Nothing is more important than conference play,” Delaware head coach Danny Rocco said. “I definitely feel like our guys are focused on doing what we need to do as we continue our preparation.”

URI sees the matchup as an opportunity.

“A win over Delaware – CAA opponent, top 25 team in the country, they’re ranked third in the preseason, we’re ranked last – it would send a big message and that’s our intention,” Fleming said.

The Rams know it’s time for the message to be a good one.

“One thing for sure with this team, the stakes are high for us,” Lawson said. “We’ve rebuilt as long as you can rebuild. Now it’s either we get the job done and we start producing on the field, or it’s just going to be another letdown. And at this stage in the game, there’s no chance for a letdown. We have to come out every week and play like it’s our last.”

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