The Saint Francis defense was the one question mark coming into the season. The No. 8 Cougars had to replace six starters, including the top two tacklers in program history in Eric Dunten and Piercen Harnish. After four games and with a 3-1 (0-1 Mid-State Football Association) record, here are five takeaways from the young defensive unit.
Dunten and Harnish were staples on the Cougars' defense that simply couldn't be replaced, but linebackers Nick Lucas and Jamal Jackson have been solid. Lucas is averaging 10 tackles per game and Jackson is averaging 5.8.
“Replacing Dunten and Harnish, those guys had been so good for so long, but people forget when they were freshman and sophomores, they weren't Dunten and Harnish yet,” co-defensive coordinator Eric Wagoner said.
Lucas, a sophomore, and Jackson, a redshirt junior, are leading a young group that has seen players such as Cade Erwin, Jackson Long and River Walsh all earn time.
“(Jackson) played with Dunten and Harnish forever, and Lucas, yes, at a different position group, so I think there's a little carry over with (Jackson) knowing what it was like with those guys around, and what preparation they put into a game,” Wagoner said.
In an injury-plagued season, maybe the two most critical were on the defensive line. Ethan Vanover and Mitchell Thornbury saw their seasons end in the Cougars' home-opening win over Saint Ambrose on Sept. 28. Their absence was felt in USF's 28-10 loss to Marian on Saturday.
“That was just killer,” Wagoner said. “After the game I went over to Vanover and Thornbury and told them, 'We could have really used you guys today,' and they both knew that.”
Getting off the field
The Cougars are last in the Mideast League in yards allowed per game (307.3). While not a horrible number, the defense struggled against Marian as the Knights had the ball for just over 13 minutes of the fourth quarter.
“We, just as a defense, got a little worn out,” Jackson said. “They had a couple more guys then us, and we didn't have the depth.”
In the Knights' game-sealing drive – and only second-half touchdown – the Cougars couldn't get stops on three third downs and allowed a fourth-down conversion. They're ranked last in the league in opponents' third down conversions (43%).
The Cougars' defense has just two interceptions and five forced fumbles. Ryan Johnson had a nice interception and return in the end zone against Saint Ambrose, though a penalty negated the good field position. That's one way to get the defense off the field and the Cougars might need to do more of it.
Senior James Jamicich, a Carroll product, leads the Mideast League in sacks with 7.5. On a line that has been plagued by injury and is small in stature, Jamicich's importance increases. The quarterback he's after this week is Peter Morrison, a former standout at Concordia high school who now starts for No. 4 Concordia (Mich).
Saint Francis vs. Concordia (Mich.)
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bishop D'Arcy Stadium
Radio: 106.3 FM