By the time Matt Denham gashed Tennessee State for more than 200 rushing yards and two touchdowns, the holes in the Tigers’ defense were no secret.
A year later, TSU hopes the Eastern Kentucky running back doesn’t expose any weaknesses in a defense that has been nearly fool proof.
So far, the 24th-ranked Tigers (5-0, 1-0 OVC) haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher. Off to their best start since 2001, they’re also just one of three Division I teams (FBS or FCS) that hasn’t surrendered more than 14 points in their first five games. Top-ranked Alabama and Texas Tech are the others.
“You can see the excitement of the kids. That is a pride factor,” coach Rod Reed said. “They’re excited about that but Denham rushed for 226 on us last year. We know what he’s capable of.”
Denham leads No. 16 Eastern Kentucky (4-1, 2-0) into Hale Stadium on Saturday (1 p.m.) as the league’s top rusher. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior hasn’t slowed down, averaging 129.2 yards a game with five touchdowns.
TSU, on the other hand, ranks second in the OVC, allowing just 112.4 yards a game. Leading that charge is middle linebacker Nick Thrasher, who was thrown into the fire last year as a freshman.
He saw firsthand the pitfalls of a young and inexperienced defense that allowed more than 32.8 points a game.
“Last year, people were playing as individuals, trying to make plays on their own instead of playing as a team,” said Thrasher, who leads the team with 43 tackles. “It wasn’t an embarrassment but people weren’t doing their jobs.”
This season, the Tigers are still young on defense with six sophomores and zero seniors among the 11 starters. But the youth movement appears to be paying off.
In 2011, the Tigers outscored their opponents in the first half but surrendered more points in the second half. This year, they’ve outscored the competition 80-23 after halftime. They’ve allowed just seven points in the fourth quarter.
“We knew it was part of the process,” Reed said of last year’s struggles. “We knew we needed to get some different talent in here. We felt like the guys we recruited after my first year here , Nick Thrasher, [cornerback Steven] Goldbolt and those guys could really be impact players for us. We’ve have good recruiting classes the past two years and those guys are showing up and playing.”
Entering this fall, the defense set a goal to allow fewer than 17 points a game. So far so good.
Equipped with the fourth-best scoring defense (13.4 points a game) in the FCS, the Tigers have given up just eight touchdowns. Only one has been a rushing score.
By Saturday’s end, they hope that number hasn’t changed. But what they expect to see from EKU – and Denham – is no secret.
“They’ll throw a couple wrinkles in every now and then and they’ve got a couple trick plays they’ll run at you,” Reed said. “But for the most part they’re downhill and they’re going to hit you in the mouth. So we’ve got to be able to stand up to that challenge.”