By Jason Bowen
|Opponents have not had a lot
of success passing, or running, or scoring on Trinity (Texas) this
Trinity athletics photo
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Trinity football program made its name as one of the most successful programs on the Division III level. Deep playoff runs and Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference championships culminated in a trip to the 2002 Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
A part of that success was a defense that prided itself in the ability to shut down opponents and ranked among the stingiest in D-III. They were known as the “Black Flag.”
But a little more than a half decade later, these are different times for the Tiger program. Last year, it suffered through its first losing season (4-6) in nearly 20 years. And while they’ve been a consistent contender in the SCAC, Trinity had won just one conference crown since 2006 entering this season. And that one required a “Mississippi Miracle” of sorts.
And despite four trips to the playoffs since 2003, they haven’t won a playoff game since that magical season in 2002.
Making matters worse for the program this past offseason, most of their conference mates decided to flee the SCAC after this year to form a new conference.
So to say that the Tigers were a team searching for a new identify back in August isn’t too much of a stretch.
“We don’t call it the “Black Flag” defense,” said first-year defensive coordinator Jim Dawson. “That was something that was in the early ‘90s that kind of fizzled out around 2000 or 2002 or up to 2005. We are not that. That was then and this is now.”
But after a 10-0 season and a return to the top of this SCAC this fall, it appears Trinity has found itself again in a defense that ranks third in the nation in scoring (9.8 ppg) and 11th total defense (242 ypg.)
“That was one of our team goals that the team came up with -- win it in the last year of the SCAC,” Dawson said.
If you are looking for a new fancy nickname, you won’t find it according to Dawson. The a veteran of 38 years of coaching, who coach Steve Mohr hired to run his defense last offseason, has coached on all three levels of college football and in Texas high schools.
“Well, we’re trying to find it,” he said. “We told the guys to try to find their MO this fall. We didn’t know what we were going to be called. We don’t have a name yet.”
The Tiger offense has been solid, but unspectacular when compared to teams such as Mary Hardin-Baylor, Linfield, Wesley and this week’s first round opponent McMurry. But it is their defense and special teams that give Trinity the best chance to advance this Saturday. The Tigers rank third in the nation in net punting and 11th in turnover margin.
Five of the Tigers wins this season have been by eight points or less. In four of those games, the defense has been on the field at the end making a stop to secure the victory.
“They believe they’re going to win,” Dawson said. “They believe somebody’s going to make a play.”
It’s been quite a turnaround from last season, when injuries, blown coverage and inexperience knocked the Tigers out of SCAC contention before the end of September.
“It was one of those years.” Dawson said, who volunteered at Trinity in 2009 but spent last season coaching high school ball. “The injury bug hit them really, really hard.
“There were some things that went on in games that are just not typical of what Trinity (defense) traditionally is all about. A lot guys playing in the game weren’t ready. You don’t want to use it as an excuse, but you look back as a coach and think that guy has no business being out there yet.”
According to Dawson, the formula for success has not been all that complicated.
“We pride ourselves on being able to line up correctly, getting our eyes where they need to be and seeing what we need to see,” He said. “We have decent team speed and try to be physical at the point of attack.
“I’ve got some really good young coaches that understand the game. They do a great job getting all our prep work done. I think having a full-time coordinator on campus has allowed us to provide more leadership. Just a new enthusiasm any time you stir the waters and change your staff around a little bit. That newness bring brings a little enthusiasm with it.”
Still, the veteran coach knows that enthusiasm and a good scheme can only get you so far.
“It’s the kids more than anything else they’ve stayed healthy and played hard,” according to Dawson. “They believe.”
Outside linebacker Ben Robinson heads an outstanding linebacking corps. The senior leads the team in tackles (79) and tackles for loss (12.5.). His versatility allows him to “make a lot of plays” according to Dawson. Robinson, who was two sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles can play outside backer and nickel.
Inside backers Nick Darling and Tom Puskarich are the “heart of our unit” said Dawson.
“The way they do (defensive) stats now is with the naked eye (in the press box) they put down whoever they think makes the tackle,” he said. “When we watch (video) when we come back, those two have about 30 more tackles than they’ve been given this season).”
Junior linebacker Phillip Hiner-Leamon leads the team in sacks with six and the defensive line has depth rotating in as many as seven players in their 3-4 scheme.
Senior fourth-year starter Tyler Barrett heads a secondary that has been able to stay healthy, a “real key” according to Dawson. Barrett is fourth on team in tackles (55) and led the SCAC in interceptions with six.
“He is a real smart kid -- kind of the quarterback back there getting us lined up against all the different formations.”
That secondary and the Tiger defense will face its biggest test to date this season on Saturday against McMurry. The War Hawks are the top-ranked passing offense (370 yards per game) in D-III, while scoring nearly 41 points a game.
“Watching them on film, they have guys that we don’t have,” Dawson said.
One of the guys that McMurry may not have is quarterback Jake Mullin, who sat out part of last week’s game with a knee injury. Still, the War Hawks appear to have a capable backup in Stephen Warren.
One thing is for sure though, if the Trinity defense is on the field with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter Saturday, don’t bet against them. If they can slow down the War Hawks, we may just have to get them a new nickname.