For winning defenses, challenge looms

By Adam Turer

Salisbury, an option team, fumbled seven times, two of them forced by Delaware Valley.
Photo by Jeffrey Levy,

Three of the nation’s top defenses survived round one by shutting down three of the nation’s most powerful offenses. Their reward? Try to do it again this week against an even more prolific offense.

Thomas More, Delaware Valley, and Montclair State won their first-round matchups by holding their respective opponents a collective 72.62 points below their per game scoring average.

The Saints shut down Washington and Lee’s fourth-ranked rushing attack and No. 23 scoring offense, holding the Generals 23 points and 127 yards below their season averages. Despite giving up 323 total yards, the Saints were able to make big plays and get off the field when they needed to most.

“Our defense made key plays when we had to, especially on third downs,” said Thomas More head coach and defensive coordinator Jim Hilvert.

Against a top-25 offense, a bend-not-break philosophy can be an effective defensive strategy. Delaware Valley shut down the nation’s second-ranked rushing team by forcing five Salisbury turnovers.

“We knew they were prone to turning the ball over, so we stressed the importance of gang tackling,” said head coach Jim Clements. “The turnovers were the key to our success.”

Hampden-Sydney entered the postseason averaging 35 points per game. Montclair State traveled to Farmville, Va., and held the Tigers to their lowest output since last season’s first-round playoff loss to Johns Hopkins. The Red Hawks knew they would give up yards, but focused on limiting big plays.

“Our approach was to not give up big chunks of yardage, not let them turn an 8-yard gain into a 40-yard gain,” said Montclair coach Rick Giancola.

While the Generals, Sea Gulls, and Tigers all entered the postseason expecting to put up big numbers, their first round opponents had something else in common. The Saints, Aggies, and Red Hawks each rank in the top 15 in scoring defense, holding opponents to less than 12 points per game. After shutting down high-powered offenses in round one, the winners face similar, but more imposing challenges in round two. Each team will once again need to rely on a huge effort from its defense to slow an opponent capable of lighting up the scoreboard.

“We always preach defense and kicking game,” said Giancola, whose team travels to Wesley on Saturday. “If they can give us a short field, it takes the pressure off of our offense.”

The Wolverines enter with the ninth-ranked offense, averaging 42.89 points per game. If the Red Hawks defense can go on the road for a second straight week and hold their host well below their scoring average, Montclair State will be in position to pull off a second straight upset.

“It usually comes down to who can put their will on the other side,” said Giancola. “You want to give yourself a chance to win late.”

John French
Defensive lineman John French and Thomas More kept the Washington and Lee offense in check.
Thomas More athletics photo

Thomas More faces another top-ten ground attack at Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Crusaders boast the third-ranked scoring offense in the country. The Saints hope to slow the Crusaders the way they were able to stifle the Generals. After defending their home field, the Saints now get to play the role of road underdog.

“We’re very excited to play a top-five team. We have nothing to lose,” said Hilvert. “We face another high-powered offense and we have to be able to stop the run.”

Playing keep-away proved an effective strategy in round one. A fresh and rested defense usually has the advantage over a frustrated offense. The Saints’ defense helped its offense to its best performance of the year. Thomas More rushed for more than 400 yards against the Generals, the first time they had done so in Hilvert’s tenure. The Saints ground game also kept the Generals offense on the sideline for long stretches. For the Aggies, it was their offense that helped their defense make quick work of Salisbury. Delaware Valley’s offense possessed the ball for 31 minutes, keeping the defense fresh and keeping Salisbury’s potent offense stewing on the sideline.

“You need offense, defense, and special teams working hand in hand to succeed in the postseason,” said Clements. “Sometimes your defense’s best friend is your offense.”

The Aggies hope that their offense wins the time of possession battle again this weekend and limits the opposing offense’s possessions. Delaware Valley travels to Alliance to take on a Mount Union team averaging over 40 points per game.

If Delaware Valley, Thomas More, or Montclair State wins on Saturday, it will be an upset. It will also most likely be the result of another tremendous defensive effort put forth against an offensive juggernaut. In the postseason, every possession, down, yard, and point become even more crucial.

“If you have a really good defense, it keeps you in the game,” said Hilvert. “Even if you fall behind, it’s usually not by much.”