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Lycoming defense facing toughest challenge in Stevenson's K.K. Smith

November 2, 2012 - Mitch Rupert
By MITCH RUPERT

mrupert@sungazette.com

Talk about your broken records. The conversation about Lycoming's defense week after week has revolved around how it will handle its next challenge of an opponent's potent running game.

And generally, after the game clock is full of zeroes, the defense is left to explain how it shut down yet another of the Middle Atlantic Conference's top running games. It's like walking through a revolving door and never stepping out. Nothing you see is new and nothing is surprising.

Enter Stevenson's K.K. Smith. He's the newest version of a challenge for the Lycoming defense. And unlike other runners the Warriors have bottled up this year, there's no doubting the ability of the Mustangs' sophomore tailback.

His success isn't the product of a small sample size the way it may have been when King's Kyle McGrath entered his matchup with Lycoming as the MAC's second-leading rusher back in Week 5. Smith has proven himself against the toughest of teams in the MAC this year. His lowest yardage output was the 90 yards he put up against King's last week. But consider, his 14 carries a week ago were a season low.

“This guy's done it for eight weeks and everybody knows he's clearly their best option. Yet, he has the highest per-game average in the conference and they've played Widener, they've played Del Val, they've played Lebanon Valley and they played Albright,” Lycoming head coach Mike Clark said. “The best teams in our league have played him and his numbers are still really, really good. It's not like he ran for 500 yards against Misericordia. He's pretty consistent. He obviously is very, very talented. He has great speed and vision and sees some things that the average kid doesn't. He's pretty good.”

But just how good? The numbers speak for themselves, especially when you consider who he's played against. Smith is the only back in the MAC to have eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark this season. He's one of two running backs in the league - McGrath being the other - who is averaging at least 100 yards rushing per game. He has the highest per-carry average (5.6 yards) of anybody in the MAC with at least 100 carries.

Just to top it all off, his 130-yard per-game average is not only tops in the MAC, it's also 12th-best in the country. Convinced he's someone to be concerned about yet?

“He's very fast and he's very agile. He's also thick and has a lot of power. We have to be able to wrap up against this guy,” said Lycoming defensive end Nate Oropollo who leads the MAC in both sacks and tackles for loss. “We have to get him into close spaces and make the tackle first. If you look at the King's and Lebanon Valley kids, they're more of downhill power backs. This kid is both. He can go downhill and he can go side-to-side and make you miss, and then he can just run you over. Watching film I've seen him do it a couple times with some pretty legit linebackers.”

The numbers for Smith are clearly enough of a reason to cause concern. But they're not empty stats, either. He hasn't built up his numbers late in ballgames as a Stevenson team with just one win this year competes against other teams' backups.

The Mustangs have lost three games this year by three points or less. That includes an overtime loss at Albright, a three-point loss to Lebanon Valley, and a three-point loss to Wilkes two weeks ago on a last-second field goal by Williamsport graduate Jordan Fredo.

Smith's statistical splits this year have been quite even. He's averaging 35.875 rushing yards in the first quarter, 30.25 yards in the second quarter, 39.25 yards in the third quarter, and 24.625 yards in the fourth quarter. His numbers clearly have no been inflated by garbage time carries.

He's been held to single digits rushing in a quarter just five times this year, and three of those have come in the fourth quarter.

“He's different. He's fast north and south, and east and west. He cuts back. He makes you miss,” Lycoming defensive tackle Dwight Hentz said. “He's on a different level from some of the other guys we've faced before.”

This is a Lycoming defense, though, that has met and conquered almost every running game challenge it's faced in the MAC this year. It's a defensive unit that has held four of its seven MAC opponents to their lowest rushing output of the season. And of the three who didn't have their lowest output, one was its second-lowest by 3 yards, one was its third-lowest by 21 yards, and one was its third-lowest by 31 yards.

As much of a reputation as Smith has built as maybe the top running back in the conference, Lycoming has distinguished itself as the stingiest run defense. A Wilkes team averaging 260 rushing yards per game gained just 131 against the Warriors a week ago. Albright was held to just 40 yards total rushing, and King's had just 36 rushing yards.

“I look forward to facing teams that have a good running game, we all do,” Hentz said. “We really like to go out there and show what we can do. Yeah, we're good at getting to the quarterback in the pass, but I think we're even better at stopping the run.”

Making teams one-dimensional is always the goal of a Steve Wiser coached defense. And if the Warriors can force teams into obvious passing situations where you have to face a bull-rush of a defensive front while throwing into a ball-hawking secondary which is tied for the league lead with 14 interceptions, then Lycoming and Wiser will likely be happy with the outcome.

This is a Lycoming defense which is allowing just 101 rushing yards per game, good enough for 32nd-best in the country. Take away a 179-yard effort from Brockport State in Week 1 and that average drops to just over 89 yards per game and the 20th-best rushing defense in the country. Those numbers aren't far off from a defense a year ago which held opponents to just 84 rushing yards per game which was good enough for eighth-best in the country.

The Warriors consistently get it done against the run by moving the line of scrimmage. Wiser calls it getting to the pillar, and that pillar is about 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage. They try to get offensive linemen who can handle the speed of the Warriors' quick front off their base.

Lycoming is second in the MAC with 63 tackles for loss this season. It's also one of just two teams (Widener being the other) to have accumulated more than 200 yards of lost yardage with those tackles for loss.

That penetration starts with Hentz and Roger Jayne in the middle, and more recently sophomore Jimmy Nottingham has played a big role in the middle of the Warriors' defensive line. Oropollo's 15 tackles for loss lead the MAC, but Hentz is second on the team with 10 tackles for loss.

“I think that's the difference for us defensively. Roger and Dwight, those guys are really good and you can't double team everybody,” Clark said. “Part of the problem opponents have with our D-line is the kid in the middle (middle linebacker Kabongo Bukasa) is to the ball in a hurry, too. You can't not block him. But that's less time you can spend on the down guy.”

“They're a force to be reckoned with,” Oropollo said. “They're not big boys, but they play big. It all starts in the middle because if you blow up the middle, then the whole play itself is blown up. Those two and Jimmy don't get enough credit for what they do.”

It's not the recognition they're after though, it's the challenge. And today might be the biggest challenge they've faced.

 
 

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