Lycoming defense standing tall
Wilkes head coach Frank Sheptock knew his Colonels had just missed a golden opportunity for a touchdown. Michael Paskas could have picked up a first-quarter fumble by Lycoming and walked into the end zone.
Instead the Colonels’ linebacker fell on the ball, a much higher percentage play to ensure Wilkes took over control of the football inside the Lycoming 15. The Colonels walked away from the scoring opportunity with three points, a less-than-ideal result in such a favorable situation.
It’s the reality, though, in playing against this Lycoming defense.
Is it the same level of defense as the one which finished ranked third in the country in total defense two years ago? Is it even the same kind of defense as last year’s, the one which finished 14th in the country in scoring defense? There’s still too much time left in the season to make that kind of determination.
But what Sheptock saw in that defensive stand in the first quarter Saturday at David Person Field was nothing less than what he expected from a Lycoming defense.
“It’s hard enough to move the ball the way it is,” Sheptock said. “They tighten the clamps down there (in the red zone) and there’s less room for them defend. Their greatness is even magnified a little bit because of the reduced area.”
Lycoming again played a brilliant first half of football Saturday. It held Wilkes to just the three first-half points. The Colonels had just 5 yard rushing on 16 attempts in the first half, and quarterback Tyler Berntsen completed just 4 of 14 passes for 47 yards.
Wilkes averaged just 1.7 yards per play in the first half.
A week after allowing just three points in the first half to Brockport, this Lycoming defense is showing he potential to live up to the standard past Warrior defenses have set.
“Defensively we were dynamite,” Lycoming head coach Mike Clark said. “It was a conflict of interest because (Wilkes) wanted to run the ball but (defensive coordinator Steve Wiser) and his staff wouldn’t allow them to do that. Something had to give. It wasn’t going to be us.”
The ability to stop the run has been the consistency through the last couple years for Lycoming to be not only one of the best defenses in the Middle Atlantic Conference, but one of the best in the country as well. The Warriors have allowed just two 100-yard rushers in its last 31 games, and both times it was Brockport’s Tyrone Nichols in the opener of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Controlling the running game is the base of everything else Lycoming does defensively. Wilkes averaged just 3 yard per carry Saturday. The group held Brockport to 2.5 yards per carry in the first half two weeks ago before wearing down in the second half.
What’s impressive about the ability to control the run is the Warriors have done it after losing All-American Anthony Marascio following the 2011 season and after losing All-MAC defensive end Nate Oropollo following last season. Preseason All-American Dwight Hentz has played a big role on the inside of the defensive line, changing the line of scrimmage with his brute strength. Jimmy Nottingham has been a staple at defensive tackle since midway through last season.
“We talk about the expectation being for the position, not the player,” Lycoming defensive end Braden Zeiner said. “We had some big shoes to fill this year, but I feel like we filled them up pretty good. We brought some young guys in here and they got some experience (against Brockport and Wilkes). Everything is starting to fall in to place and come together.”
“Knowing Steve Wiser, unless you’re just so much physically better than us, people are going to struggle to line up and just dictate the game by running the ball 45 times,” Clark said. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Take Saturday for instance. Wilkes was coming off an opening-week win in which it had run the ball nearly 60 times for more than 260 yards in a lopsided win over Morrisville State.
By the end of the first quarter against Lycoming, Colonels quarterback Tyler Berntsen had thrown nine passes, just four fewer than he threw the entire game against Morrisville State. Running the ball seven times for just 10 yards in the first quarter seemed to take Wilkes out of its gameplan.
Berntsen ended up throwing 27 passes in the loss, completing just 11.
“We were off out plan a bit in that first quarter,” Sheptock said. “That defense is very strong through the core, but we thought we could do some things off-tackle and try to make those real athletic corners and outside linebackers play a little more downhill.”
“It starts up front with the defensive line. Penetration kills every play,” Zeiner said. “They’re a team that’s going to come in and run the ball and we know that, and we knew we had to get the pressure and we got it. We matched up real well with them and (Saturday) we got the best of them.”
Mitch Rupert covers Lycoming football for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.