SIOUX CITY, Iowa-Dakota Wesleyan University's defense has been porous for most of the season, but on Saturday at Briar Cliff, the holes closed a little.
The Tigers fell 20-13 to the Chargers, but the defense allowed its fewest points of the season and looked unrecognizable from the defense that gave up a combined 107 points over two weeks to No. 2-ranked Morningside College and No. 5 Northwestern College.
"(We were) able to get stops and get off the field and create a couple of turnovers we needed," DWU head coach Ross Cimpl said. "That's something we knew we needed to do coming into the game because we knew their defense is really good."
It started with a revamped defensive line getting into the backfield often and racking up 12 tackles for loss and two sacks. It held Briar Cliff, which entered the game averaging 4.4 yards per carry, to 2.7 per rush.
The defensive line saw its second change in as many weeks, as Alan Murtic and Dominick Warmbein have recently entered the Tigers' starting lineup. Both made an immediate impact, with Murtic racking up 10 tackles and two tackles for loss and Warmbein having seven tackles and 1/2 tackles for loss.
"Just trying to continue to build some depth (on the D-line)," Cimpl said. "Being able to play the run game, but also what we were able to do in the pass game in pressure and getting after the quarterback, I thought we did a nice job with that (Saturday)."
DWU's deep linebacker group also played a big role in its defensive turnaround. Linebackers Tyler Wagner (13 tackles, 3 TFL) and Mitchell native Cody Reichelt (8 tackles, 1/2 TFL) were all over the field. However, it was Dillon Rork who came up with two interceptions after suffering a right leg injury five minutes into the game, which will be checked out later in the week.
Although, with Rork standing on the sideline for a couple of plays following his injury, DWU's defense didn't miss a beat. Briar Cliff was stuffed for a two-yard loss on the ensuing play, followed by three straight incompletions with Wagner and Kimball native Eathen Gaulke both hitting Charger quarterback Jacob Diaz.
However, despite putting pressure on Diaz, he still completed 14 of 21 passes for 275 yards.
DWU's secondary gave up a couple of home run plays that have hurt it all season. The Chargers' first two touchdowns were passes of 94, due to a broken tackle, and 65 yards, due to Elijah Brown, "just making a play and beating us," per Cimpl.
The Tigers have allowed six touchdowns of 50 yards or more in 2018, which has led to it allowing 42.8 points per game-82nd out of 90 NAIA teams.
"If we can eliminate those plays, or make them snap it again and try to get a stop, it'll change the dynamic of the game," Cimpl said. "But there's a lot of things that go into a final score."
While those plays stand out, the Tigers still struggled getting off the field as the Chargers converted 8 of 18 (44 percent) third downs. Overall, Cimpl said he was pleased with his defense's performance, citing how he felt the coverage and secondary worked well together.
Heading into Saturday's game at Concordia (Neb.) University, which averages just 16.8 points per game, the Tigers' defense has another chance to show improvement.
"We're going to need those guys to continue to improve and get better," Cimpl said. "It's a game defensively, given our recent history, we needed to play well, execute and play a full game and I feel like we did that."