|Salisbury has three players
with 99 or more carries this season, six with 40 or
Salisbury athletics photo
By Adam Turer
When two of the nation’s most prolific offenses square off in the West Region final, the pressure will be on each defense to keep the game close. UW-Whitewater has a punishing rushing attack led by a disciplined offensive line and All-American running back Levell Coppage. Salisbury led the nation in scoring this year, thanks in large part to the precision of its triple option offense. It is safe to say that neither defense has faced an opposing offense on par with what it will see this Saturday when the two teams square off in Wisconsin with a trip to the national semifinals on the line.
“We generally have success stopping the run, but we haven’t seen anyone run the ball with the kind of success Salisbury’s had,” said Warhawks defensive coordinator Brian Borland. “We need our guys to do their jobs well and make the plays that they should make.”
The Warhawks coaching staff saw a similar attack in league play a few years back when UW-River Falls ran and ran. While Salisbury has perfected it in a way that UW-RF hadn’t since the mid-1990s, the Whitewater staff will take what they learned from past preparation.
“I think you have to draw on that experience as much as you can,” said Borland.
The current Warhawks defenders have never prepared for the triple option offense. Entering this week, they had yet to run a play against it in practice. The scout team will try to capture the complexities of the triple option this week, but the Warhawks will still have to learn on the fly on Saturday.
“You’re never going to be able to practice against it as well as Salisbury does it,” said Borland. “There’s always going to be a little adjustment period to the speed come game time. I think we’ll be schooled up and ready by Saturday.”
Jimmy Qualters saw the Warhawks offense up close twice this season. The Franklin junior linebacker started in his team’s Week 2 loss to Whitewater. He watched from the sidelines injured as the Warhawks knocked the Grizzlies out of the postseason last week.
“Their offense is very strong and they don’t make mistakes,” said Qualters. “When they all come together and they’re clicking, it’s hard to stop them.”
Coppage rushed for 119 yards and two scores in the first half of the Sept. 10 game and added 221 yards and three scores last week.
“He does a good job of hiding behind his linemen and then once he finds a crease, he’s gone,” said Qualters of the All-American running back. “It takes everyone on your defense to keep their offensive linemen from getting to the second level.”
The cohesiveness of Whitewater’s offense may only be matched by the synchronicity of Salisbury’s triple option. It will take a finely tuned defensive effort to match the offensive firepower on Saturday.
|Jake Hohlstein, Casey Casper
and the rest of the UW-Whitewater defense will have a different
task than usual ahead of them this week.
Photo by Daryl Tessmann for d3photography.com
“A lot of teams get caught standing and watching and by the time they figure it out, it’s too late,” said Borland. “It takes a lot of discipline — body, eyes, and reading your keys.”
Prior to last week’s triple overtime shootout with Kean, the Sea Gulls were allowing just 17 points per game. They know that they are facing their biggest challenge of the season. Against strong competition and strong running teams in the Empire 8, Salisbury proved that its defense can rise to the occasion.
“The key for us is to focus on Salisbury,” said Sea Gulls defensive line coach Jonathan Bannister. “We have to play our fundamental game and we have to execute just as well as, if not better than, they do.”
Both teams rank in the top ten in the nation in turnover margin. With each team expected to get its yards and points to an extent, this game could come down to who comes up with a timely takeaway.
“It is very crucial for our defense to be as opportunistic as possible,” said Bannister. “One of our strengths all year has been the way we get after the ball and create turnovers.”
While Whitewater must prepare for an offensive style that it has yet to see this season, Salisbury can draw from its earlier preparation for the ground games of St. John Fisher and Frostburg State. The inside and outside zones that Whitewater likes to run are not brand new concepts to the Sea Gulls defense. The man carrying the ball, however, is the difference maker.
“He has great vision, great feet, and he trusts his offensive linemen,” said Bannister of Coppage. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he runs big and with a lot of heart.”
The Sea Gulls should not show any signs of fatigue from their 49-47 triple overtime win over Kean in the second round. Depth has been a key factor for Salisbury’s defense this year and has allowed the Sea Gulls to overpower opponents late in games.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to rotate a lot of guys and stay fresh,” said Bannister. “I think we’ve benefitted from a lot of young guys stepping up into key roles.”
Who will step up on Saturday and make a game-changing play? Neither team is loaded with big name stars on defense. Linebacker Greg Arnold is the catalyst for the Warhawks defense and has several talented teammates around him. Jamey McClendon, Chris Everett, Andre Carter, and Alex Akinseye, among others, have made big plays for the Sea Gulls. Neither team has faced an offense as potent as the one it will face Saturday.
“It’s a matter of we’ve got to do what we do best better than they do what they do best,” said Borland. “We know that we won’t be able to keep them from getting any yards. We just can’t give up big plays. We might bend, but we can’t break.”