Monday, October 10, 2011

Booth Review: Digging the Defense

In Blackwater Draw, the same archaeological site in eastern New Mexico where scientists have unearthed evidence of ancient human civilization, another more recent artifact was discovered Saturday: the ACU defense.

After being gouged for nearly 1,000 yards combined in home wins over Angelo State (503 yards gained) and Western Oregon (474), the Wildcat defensive unit neutered a Greyhound offense that entered the game as one of the most prolific in all of Division II.

Eastern was held to 142 fewer passing yards, 129 fewer yards of total offense and seven fewer first downs than it had been averaging this season and 16 fewer points than its previously lowest point total. In fact, ENMU hadn't been held to as few as seven points since 2007.

Like the last two weeks, ACU was missing two key defensive contributors - linebackers Jesse Harper (out for the year with a knee injury) and Cy Wilson (the coaches still hope he can return at some point); unlike the last two weeks, the ACU defense did most of its damage without any help from the opponent in the way of easy drops or stupid penalties.

The linebackers who did play - Derek Odelusi, Derek Drummond, Thor Woerner, Chris Summers, Nick Richardson, Nate Baggs, Lynn Grady and Justin Stephens (first career interception) - were terrific, both in stuffing the run and clogging up passing lanes in the middle of the field. ENMU's Wesley Wood, the nation's third leading passer, averaged a piddling 4.4 yards for each of his 44 attempts.

Even the linebacker who didn't play linebacker, reserve Chris Jones, was disruptive. Knowing how crazy fast Eastern likes to play - think of an a cappella worship leader starting the next verse of a song before the one you're on is over - defensive coordinator Jason Johns shifted Jones - all 5'11", 205 pounds of him - to defensive line because of his speed. Genius. Jones wound up with a sack, a QB hurry and five total tackles even though - as sideline reporter Nick Boone told us after the game on the broadcast - the coaches had to explain his assignments, sometimes between plays.

Last season, ACU held two opponents to seven points or less, Tarleton State (3) and East Central (7). But Tarleton was missing its stud quarterback (Tennessee transfer Nick Stephens) because of injury and East Central was, well, East Central. Saturday's performance was the most dominant by an ACU defense against a good offense since 2009 when the 'Cats limited Midwestern State, which was led by D2's most efficient quarterback Zack Eskridge, to 15 and 21 points in consecutive weeks and suffocated a potent Tarleton State team into -27 yards rushing and only 172 yards of total offense, 75 of which came on a single go-for-broke play in the final five minutes that allowed the Texans to escape with a 13-6 victory.

The offense continued to play well. Make it three straight games with no turnovers (a first in the Chris Thomsen era) and at least five offensive touchdowns. But it was the defense that served notice of its ability to stop a good team. Which is good because two more are on deck: this weekend against West Texas A&M at home and the following Saturday at Midwestern State. With those two teams and ACU unbeaten in the Lone Star Conference, nothing less than the conference championship is at stake.

Blackwater Draw is in the rearview mirror. The Wildcat defense must continue to dig deep.

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