The lights will be coming on in Kingston Saturday night, and the University of Rhode Island football team is aiming to shine right along with them.
Delaware visits at 7 p.m. for a momentous home opener that will mark the debut of Meade Stadium’s $4 million turf and lights project. It’s a big game in Colonial Athletic Association play for the Rams, and they know it’s more than that, too.
“It would mean, first and foremost, that we would be 1-0 in the conference,” head coach Jim Fleming said of gracing the big stage with a win. “Secondarily, you’ve got a lot of people who have a regenerated interest in Rhode Island football. To be able to reward them with a home victory, I believe will keep them coming back. We’re going to have an electric environment here. It’s going to be historic in terms of a new surface and new lights. To be able to go out, play our best football, and beat a quality opponent like Delaware would be absolutely huge for us.”
The two $1 million gifts that sparked the Meade Stadium improvements were announced just over a year ago. Additional fundraising followed and additional excitement was created by the Rams when they broke through last year for the program’s first winning season in 17 years.
The two projects – the field and the football rebuild – became dovetailed, and the Rams would like to keep the link strong on Saturday.
“I think our kids are excited,” Fleming said. “They recognize the importance of this game for our season and for our program. It’s going to be an incredibly exciting week around here. Once the lights get turned on and we get a chance to get out underneath them, it’s going to be another step forward in terms of where we want to take this football program.”
It won’t be the first night game in Meade Stadium’s history – temporary lights were brought in for a game many years ago – but it will be historic all the same.
URI enters with an 0-1 record, having dropped its opener to Football Bowl Subdivision foe Ohio by a 41-20 score last Saturday. The Bobcats – preseason favorites in the Mid-American Conference – built a first-half lead and pulled away in the third quarter. URI had been on the cusp of wins in its past two games against FBS opponents, but didn’t have enough this time.
“I think we played decent but we didn’t play well enough to win that game,” Fleming said. “We walked away with not a really good feeling, the way we played. I think we have a lot better football in us.”
After a quarterback competition in fall camp, redshirt junior Vito Priore earned the starting nod and had his moments, completing 22 of 42 passes for 291 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“I was very pleased,” Fleming said. “I think his preparation and his competitiveness put him in position to be named the starter. He had to earn it every step of the way. He prepared well for the game and he performed admirably. He was able to get that ball up to our playmakers and those guys did the rest. I was pleased with his performance and I’m looking forward to it getting better and better.”
Preseason All-American Aaron Parker was up to his usual tricks, catching nine passes for 144 yards and a touchdown. Running back Zoe Bryant was also a bright spot, rushing 17 times for 89 yards.
“There were a number of explosions out there, both in the run and the pass game, which excites us all about what we have the ability to do,” Fleming said.
Among the missing pieces were third-down performance and red-zone efficiency. The Rams converted only four of 14 third downs while allowing Ohio to hit on eight of 11. And on two drives deep into Ohio territory, to the 2- and 5-yard line, URI managed a total of just three points.
“There were some points left out there,” Fleming said. “We operated offensively reasonably well, but we shot ourselves in the foot with some penalties early in the game.”
Delaware comes to town off an opening-week victory over Delaware State. The Blue Hens are ranked 21st in the STATS FCS poll.
It’s the second straight year that URI will line up against Delaware for a significant game. Last year’s matchup was the season opener, and the Rams’ road victory was a springboard for their winning season.
URI wouldn’t mind another signature win Saturday.
“Big improvements are made between week one and week two if you’re going to be a good football team,” Fleming said. “We’re excited. You’ve got to put the last game behind you. We had our hangover [Sunday] but now we’re back on track.”