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Questions of defense abound for Sycamores
Figures don’t lie, but liars figure. And then there are statistics.
Or, to put that another way, just how good is Indiana State’s pass defense anyway?
After holding Western Illinois to just 19 yards through the air Saturday on four completions — none for longer than 7 yards — in 11 attempts, the Sycamores are ranked third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in defensive pass efficiency and, at 95.7 yards per game, are the stingiest in passing yards allowed by more than 50 per game.
The only pass attempts thrown down the field Saturday by Western quarterback Matt Barr resulted in an interception by freshman corner CJ Ullysse, who had his receiver blanketed perfectly, and a breakup by safety Alex Sewall.
The key word in that sentence is “only.”
ISU opponents have attempted just 50 passes in three games — lowest against an MVC defense — and in Saturday’s case it was because the opponent didn’t have to pass. Western rushed for 384 yards — ask your boss if he’d be willing to give you a dollar for every time that number comes up during ISU practice sessions this week rather than your usual salary — and didn’t attempt a pass on four of its six scoring drives.
That leaves ISU with the worst rushing defense in the conference — but that figure comes with its own asterisk.
Barr rushed for 48 yards himself, for example, but a lot of those yards came on pass attempts — pass attempts in which a potential Sycamore sacker slid in the mud past a side-stepping Barr to allow the quarterback some daylight downfield. You wouldn’t become quite as rich asking your boss for a dollar every time an ISU defender was prevented from making a big play because of losing his footing, but you might break even.
“You can’t change direction [at full speed] on a day like this,” coach Trent Miles said after the game, although in response to a different question.
“It was important to keep our footing,” said Western running back Caulton Ray, who combined with teammate Bryce Flowers for 307 yards and four touchdowns.
So who benefits from a field that basically forces you to run straight ahead? Would it be Western, with a pair of squatty 205-pound tailbacks running behind 240-pound fullback Josh Gabelmann, or would it be the Sycamores, whose entire stable of runners right now consists of 190-pound Darrius Gates, 185-pound Shakir Bell, 170-pound George Cheeseborough and 220-pound fullback Brock Lough? If you need a hint, ISU’s best offensive drive came with Lough carrying the ball.
“It felt good to be able to go in [and carry the ball],” said Lough, more often than not a blocker instead of a runner, after the game. “The guys up front opened some holes that allowed me to get downfield, and that gave the offense a little energy.”
The abysmal field conditions Saturday, therefore, could render the current statistics an anomaly. ISU’s pass defense may not be that good, but its rushing defense may not be that bad.
And Western, which has achieved all three of its wins so far at home and in the rain? “We play at North Dakota [State] next week, and I hope it rains in the dome,” Ray said.
• Special teams — Miles’ answer concerning change-of-direction difficulties came on a question about why the Sycamores may have set some kind of record Saturday with six fair catches on kickoff returns.
Western kicker Charlie Jouett consistently popped short kickoffs to Sycamore blockers, who consistently made fair-catch signals.
“If it’s a really high kick, we teach the guys to fair catch, because they have no protection [from oncoming tacklers],” Miles explained after the game. “It’s usually better than a short return … we’re willing to take the ball at the 40 or the 45[-yard line].”
This could have been one situation in which the speedy Gates and/or Bell would have had an advantage. Asked why the Leathernecks continued to pursue that strategy and allow that field position, Miles surmised, “They probably didn’t want to give up a long return … when you’re going down to cover a kickoff, you can’t change direction on a day like this.”
ISU also unveiled some new punting strategy Saturday involving quarterback Ronnie Fouch. Three times on fourth-down plays with less than 10 yards to go near the middle of the field, the Sycamore offense stayed on the field and Fouch, after initially lining up in the spread offense flanked by two backs, stepped back and punted with no punt returner in sight.
“That’s going to be part of our offense,” Miles said after the game. “If you give us a certain look [as a defensive team], we’ll go for it. It takes pressure off our punting team.”
So far the strategy has been impeccable. All three times Fouch pinned the Leathernecks inside their 20-yard line, twice inside the 5-yard line, while averaging 38.7 yards per punt.
“Coach Miles just kind of threw me in there [as a punter],” Fouch said. “[The strategy is] to make sure the defense doesn’t have somebody back [for a punt return]. I think it worked out.”
By Andy Amey, The Tribune-Star