November 20, 2012

Widener and Salisbury keep defensive coordinators up at night

More news about: Salisbury | Widener
Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis is Widener's leading receiver, although the Pride have seven receivers with 20 or more catches.
Widener athletics photo 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

If you've ever questioned why football coaching is one of the most sleep-deprived professions, look no further than the offenses at Widener and Salisbury. These potent attacks will keep defensive coordinators burning the midnight oil, attempting to devise a scheme to slow them down. Plus, staying awake is often better than having nightmares.

"I go to church a lot during the week," jokes Salisbury defensive coordinator Robb Disbennett when asked how he planned to slow the nation's No. 2 scoring offense on Saturday.

The Sea Gulls will have their hands full with Chris Haupt and the Pride offense, which averages 50.5 points per game, second only to No. 1 Mount Union. Widener looked vulnerable for a half in its 44-14 opening round win over Bridgewater State, before reeling off 37 second-half points. No defense has solved the Widener offense in 2012, a major reason why the Pride is one of seven undefeated teams left in the playoffs.

"You have to be able to match their tempo," said Lycoming coach Mike Clark, whose team held Widener to its lowest output of the season in a 28-23 loss on October 20. "They're good at what they do and they go fast. They kind of play basketball on grass."

The Pride likes to run screens and quick passes, but can also beat you with the run. When you try to bottle up the offense near the line of scrimmage, wide receiver Anthony Davis will beat you deep. If you think you can disrupt Haupt in the pocket, good luck: the Pride offensive line allowed just four sacks all season.

"They do a great job offensively with their rhythm and timing getting rid of the football," said Lebanon Valley coach Jim Monos, whose team took Widener to overtime before falling, 40-37, on September 29. "They go in spurts and get momentum."

Salisbury's defense — led by lineman Nick Ochoa, linebackers Steven Gamble and Matt McCurdo, and defensive backs Greg Stanton and Andre Carter — will have its hands full trying to stop a Widener offense that put up 90 points in a game earlier this season. Disbennett has spent practice sessions this week running two scout team offenses against his defense in an attempt simulate Widener's speed.

"I don't know that we can replicate it in practice," said Disbennett, whose unit ranks ninth in the nation in scoring defense and 15th in total defense. "There will be a learning curve on Saturday."

Joe Benedetti has rushed for 1,126 yards and 12 touchdowns this season and is one of three Salisbury rushers with more than 500 yards.
Salisbury athletics photo

The defense on the other side is not resting any easier this week. Widener has to prepare for Salisbury's option-based attack, which ranks sixth in the nation in rushing offense. Joe Benedetti leads the Sea Gulls in rushing, but the point man of the offense is quarterback Dan Griffin. Like Widener, Salisbury likes to dictate the game's tempo with its offense.

"It takes a few series to get accustomed to the speed that they run their triple option at," said North Carolina Wesleyan cornerback Dwayne Hollis, whose team gave up 69 points to the Sea Gulls on Sept. 15. "The hardest thing is just playing your position. You have to be a pretty disciplined team. If you're not disciplined, it's going to be a long day."

Unlike the Empire 8, there are no triple-option offenses in the MAC. This will be the first time all year that Widener has prepared for anything like Salisbury's offense and its "superbacks."

"They do what they do and they're very good at it," said Widener coach Isaac Collins. "Our defense has to match their consistency. Any time you face a triple option, the key is to not give up the big play."

Collins does have some experience preparing for the triple option. In his previous stop, as defensive coordinator at The Citadel, Collins had to prepare for Wofford's triple option. Collins will look at some of his old notes, but realizes that they won't make too much of a difference come Saturday.

"Football's football," said the third-year head coach. "It comes down to reads and playing fundamentally sound."

The Pride defense ranks fourth nationally in sacks and 11th in tackles for loss, all while playing almost exclusively in a base defense. The front seven has been able to disrupt opposing backfields without blitzing. That tenacity and gap discipline will be put to the test on Saturday.

"The way our defense is structured, I think we can stop the run," said defensive end Chad Gravinese. "The key is not overdoing the play and everyone doing their job."

While Haupt and the offense have put up staggering numbers, the Pride defense has quietly had a good season. Only Lebanon Valley and Albright scored more than 23 points against Widener this year. On the other side, Salisbury's defense is a well-known entity, holding opponents to single digits in six games. It allowed no more than 23 points in any game this year -- those 23 coming in a 40-point win over Utica.

"I like how we fly under the radar as a unit," said Gravinese. "Practicing against our offense definitely helps us and prepares us to take over games late."

One key to Widener's success on defense this year has been its depth. With the offense striking so quickly, the defense has avoided fatigue by rotating two players at every position throughout each game.

"That formula has really benefited us," said Collins. "It has helped us stay healthy and it's really helped our defense play better down the stretch."

Forget the prolific offenses. It doesn't matter that Widener was held to seven first half points in Round 1, or that Salisbury scored just 17 in its opening-round win over Rowan. Each defense pays little attention to how many points its own offense is putting on the board.

"We never go into a game thinking that our offense will score," said Disbennett. "We have to take care of what we do defensively."

Saturday should be a reminder for each defensive player of why they grind through conditioning drills in August and run sprints in the spring. It's going to be a long day that will test both the physical and mental toughness of each defense. As well as each defense may play, the game may come down to who gets the last stop.

"You've got to score points to beat them," said Clark of Widener. The same can be applied to Salisbury. "They're going to get their points on just about anybody."

Two defenses on Saturday will try to reverse that trend. The unit that succeeds will be playing football in December.

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