Controlling the line of scrimmage: Improved play in the trenches guides DWU to second win
Saturday’s season-best performance from the Dakota Wesleyan University defense started in practice.
Whenever it faces the practice squad, the defense equates one yard given up to 10 yards in a real game. It helped it tighten up against the run game, an area that plagued it just a week prior to its 26-7 win over Briar Cliff on Saturday.
“We emphasized that,” said DWU linebacker Tziah Owens, who had a team-high seven tackles after returning from a neck injury. “We went hard in practice stopping the run, getting stops in the backfield. That’s what we did (Saturday).”
The Tigers (2-5) went from giving up 6.4 yards per carry on the season to holding the Chargers to 33 yards on 30 carries. Despite facing a 6-foot-2, 205-pound running back, the Tigers swarmed to King Waller and took him down with ease by not allowing him to get to the edge. Briar Cliff only had one run longer than 10 yards.
On the rare pass play, Cayden Mitchell oftentimes had a defender in his face, including on two screen plays that led to interceptions by Plankinton native Hayden Schmidt and Menno native Trey Bohlmann. Joshua Garry also had a fumble recovery.
In other words, the Tigers controlled the line of scrimmage. Dominick Warmbein had two sacks and DWU finished with seven tackles for loss as a team, holding the Chargers to 1.9 yards per play. This came after it gave up 50 points in back-to-back contests.
“I think it starts with the defensive line. Those guys (are) getting movement,” DWU coach Ross Cimpl said. “... The movement up front and guys playing downhill and getting after it turned into a really good game plan for us.”
Briar Cliff could’ve stuck in the game if its defense got to the quarterback like it has proved capable of this season. Or if it simply exposed the DWU offensive line like teams have in most weeks.
Instead, against a team with 19 sacks, the offensive line showed progress and had one of its best games this season. It surely helps that everyone remained healthy for a second straight week, but heading into the bye week, it’s a positive sign that the group created the biggest holes Emery native Jamin Arend has seen this year. Arend took advantage, rushing for a career-high 98 yards and a 27-yard touchdown. He had just 204 yards in his first six games.
Briar Cliff still managed three sacks, but the Tigers tried to keep it off-balanced by lining up Mitchell native Spencer Neugebauer and Arend on each side of Zachary Lester. Neugebauer had a season-high 10 carries for 61 yards.
“Briar Cliff is no slouch up front,” Cimpl said. “Those guys really are tough and physical. We challenged those guys up front and they responded in a big way. Our rushing totals haven’t been great the last few weeks, and our guys take that personally. They did a good job of executing.”
Cimpl noted before Saturday the importance of getting the run game going. On a windy day, it surely didn’t hurt. Lester finished 14-for-28 for 133 yards and a touchdown, as he targeted Neugebauer, tight end Brandon Tukes and Arend for short gains.
“Briar Cliff liked to play a lot of two-high safety looks to keep everything underneath,” Lester said. “We figured we’d attack that this week.”
Arend’s production on the ground has wavered this season, but his increasing role in the pass game is something that wasn’t seen earlier in the year and adds another wrinkle to the playbook.
He’s a reliable pass catcher and has shown he can make guys miss in the open field since Week 1, but his role has only recently increased. He caught four passes for 48 yards, giving him 12 grabs for 77 yards in the last two weeks.
“Whatever helps winning, so if I’m in on pass pro, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever it takes,” Arend said. “It’s exciting being out there when he puts me out there, but if he wants me in protection, I’ll protect.”
The Tigers still failed to finish a couple of drives when given opportune field position, but with a bye week looming, it’s an area it’ll have time to fix before facing Jamestown (N.D.) and Concordia (Neb.) to end the season. It'll only help if the offensive line can find consistency week-to-week.
“I hope the guys believe,” Owens said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to get the guys to do -- believe and not give up. This win, especially at home after we’ve struggled to get one at home, is big for us.”
Special teams woes
The wind played a major factor in the kicking game, and possibly cost DWU a shutout. Tate Gale’s punt from the end zone went 15 yards to the DWU 18-yard line. On the next play, Cayden Mitchell hit Kobe Johnson for a touchdown for Briar Cliff’s only points.
During a game where DWU’s offense and defense stepped up, special teams struggled.
The Tigers fumbled a snap on an extra point following their final touchdown. Neugebauer didn’t catch a couple of punts that Briar Cliff downed inside the 10-yard line and the Chargers recovered the opening second-half kickoff on a short kick.
“We got to put all three phases together,” Cimpl said. “We have two more games and we want to compete in those games and give ourselves a chance to win. If we’re going to do that, it’s going to come down to special teams.”