With the possibility of a winning season on the line on a stormy Pittsburgh Saturday, the Maroons turned in a game as bleak as the weather. Untimely turnovers dropped Chicago once again, this time by a 17-7 score.
"We play a high-risk style of offense, but we just have to take better care of the ball than we have been," head coach Dick Maloney said.
The team turned the ball over five times, including a fumble at Carnegie Mellon's four-yard line on their first drive of the game and an interception at the Tartan 37 on the Maroons' second series.
"Any time you lose the ball, it's a critical point in the game," Maloney said. "It's just happening too much right now."
With the loss, the Maroons fell to 1-5, 0-2 in the UAA. With just three games left and Case Western the last remaining conference opponent, Chicago guaranteed its third-straight losing season, and its second-straight in the conference.
"We could have won this game," Maloney said. "Carnegie Mellon is probably a better football team, but if we execute better, we can beat better teams. We play a hard schedule just for this sort of challenge, but you need to take your opportunities when you have them to overcome that challenge."
The Tartans (4-2, 1-0) took advantage of gusting tail winds to score on two long, second-quarter drives, and they nailed a 23-yard field goal midway through the third. Chicago got on the board later in the quarter with a nine-yard touchdown pass from second-year quarterback Marc Zera to fourth-year tight end Jack Stockert.
"[Stockert] made just a sensational catch, and that was after getting hurt earlier in the game. He was playing with a brace on, and still managed a really wonderful play," Maloney said.
However, his efforts were not enough to overcome the efforts of Carnegie fullback Travis Sivek, who rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown. His score, which came with 32 seconds left in the first half, was the latest in a long line of breakdowns before halftime for the Maroons, who have been outscored 86-9 in the second quarter.
"There's no rhyme or reason for us to be beaten so badly in the second. It's just happening, and it's something we have to deal with. We make major refinements for each game, and we tend to switch schemes again at halftime. It's possible that that's just the quarter when they're adjusted to our style the most, but that's just a guess. I really couldn't tell you why," Maloney said.
Despite Sivek's runs, the coaching staff still felt that the defense performed well enough to win against a great rushing team.
"Running is just what Carnegie Mellon does. They have high averages, year after year. Passing is not one of their strengths," Maloney said of Carnegie's 179.8 yards per game. The Maroons allowed 173 on Saturday.
The air game was a different story, with the Tartans only gaining 94 passing yards. However, the Maroons did not put up an especially strong performance at quarterback, either. Struggling against the wind, Zera threw for 178 yards on 23 completions, but had three passes picked off. He has thrown seven interceptions in three starts.
"Obviously, it's not acceptable, but a couple of those have happened on Hail Mary plays at the end of the first half, and he's been throwing a lot of passes in general. A hundred and fifty attempts, it's going to happen sometimes," Maloney said.
Maloney also pointed to other performance issues as factors in the high pick-off numbers.
"You don't realize how many things are involved with something like this. You need to protect the quarterback well, you need to make sure everyone's running the routes correctly. It's not necessarily all one player," he said.
"With an extra week, we will be reevaluating the quarterback situation, but we want to keep all this in mind."
Zera is backed up by second-year Phil Marino, with whom he split time for the first third of the season, and first-year Justin Fleming.
The team has this Saturday off before facing Bethany College on Senior Day October 30. Chicago has not lost in four meetings with the Bison (0-6).