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SPOTLIGHT
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Tiger defense shows improvement

Published on -9/28/2012, 9:13 AM

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By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University senior bandit backer Layton Hickel was pleased with his team's defensive play in last Saturday's 21-3 home loss to Missouri Western State University.

"I feel like we did a successful job," Hickel said.

In the last four years, praise for the Tiger defense has been limited for a unit that has consistently ranked in the bottom of the MIAA and cycled through defensive coordinators on an annual basis. This year, the raw numbers, including standing 13th in the 15-team conference and 135th in NCAA Division II in scoring defense, aren't strong either.

However, when context, such as strength of schedule and opponents' offense, is applied to the Tigers' defense, Fort Hays actually rates much higher. It shows a unit that has several positives -- and delivered a well-played game against the No. 7 Griffons. FHSU allowed a a 19-yard TD pass on third down and a 56-yard run, but Missouri Western had trouble scoring and moving the chains.

"It seemed like on defense, we were really hitting on all cylinders finally," second-year coach Chris Brown said. "A few busts in man coverage and we are fine in that game."

On Saturday, Fort Hays (0-4, 0-4 MIAA) plays its first team that isn't among the nation's elite when it travels to Truman State (Mo.) University (3-1, 2-1 MIAA). Game time is 1 p.m. from Stokes Stadium in Kirksville, Mo.

Fort Hays permitted 427 yards against the Griffons, but yardage isn't one of the Tigers' main goals. Outside of Brown's office, FHSU has a series of goal sheets and a special teams depth chart. For defense, the Tigers have three goals: rank in the top-3 in the MIAA for third down stops, forced turnovers and fewest points allowed.

Fort Hays currently doesn't rank in the top-3 in those categories, mainly because it has faced four teams that collectively has a 14-2 record. The squads - Emporia State University, Washburn University, Northwest Missouri State University and Missouri Western -- combine to average 35.1 points per game, commit 1.6 turnovers a contest and convert 41.6 percent of third downs when they don't face FHSU.

Fort Hays' defense has allowed 38.8 points per game, forced two turnovers a contest and allowed teams to convert 55 percent of third downs.

Masseyratings.com, a site that takes into account opponents' strength, ranks Fort Hays' defense as No. 80 in NCAA Division II -- much better than 135th in the raw numbers.

Last week produced the year's best performance. It marked the first time Missouri Western scored fewer than 38 points. The Tigers forced three turnovers. The Griffons had converted 26-of-37 (70 percent) of third downs, but finished 5-of-15 (33 percent) versus the Tigers. In fall camp, first-year defensive coordinator Cooper Harris emphasized putting pressure on the opponents' quarterback.

Junior defensive lineman Basil Bandy, tied for the team lead with three sacks, said the Tigers applied more pressure last week on Griffons' quarterback Travis Partridge than in any game this year. Bandy believed one of the differences between last Saturday and the first three games was the defense "just having more fun."

"We are getting better, coming together as a whole defense, and playing our positions better," Bandy said. "Doing what we are supposed to do. Playing our blocks right, and getting to the ball better."

Missouri Western scored two touchdowns by the 6:18 mark of the first half, but then had just one score the rest of the game.

"Towards the end of the game, you just knew what they were going to do, and you could just react to it, and that's how we were able to get a lot of those stops," Hickel said. "I would say that is probably the most physical we have been, and I think that it has a lot to do with confidence. We got a few stops early and really thought that we could play with them. When you give a team confidence, it's crazy what you can do with it."

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