FORT WAYNE – So here they come out of the locker room, the two of them, a matched set if ever there was one. Mountain Man One is Zach Bruce. Mountain Man Two, Kyle Mathewson.
Bearded up to a fare-thee-well, they look the part as key pillars of a Saint Francis defense that has had to blaze an exceptionally hard trail lately.
Last week it was the NAIAs No. 1 passing offense they had to deal with, and they dealt with it, limiting Faulkner (Ala.) to 13 points in a 20-13 win, roughly 37 points below Faulkners average.
Now, as a dubious reward, they get not only top-ranked and unbeaten Cumberlands (Ky.) (11-0) in the quarterfinal round of the NAIA playoffs, but the No. 1 rushing offense.
Just another Saturday at the office, according to Bruce and Mathewson.
Weve been conditioned for this all year long, says Bruce, the Cougars first-team all-conference defensive end. We played top-ranked teams all year. As a defense, we are finally clicking and know what we have to do.
Mathewson, a second-team all-conference linebacker, will vouch for that.
Weve had a pretty tough schedule, he says, looking back at a regular season that included six straight games against ranked opponents. Were just gonna take it on like every other game.
Not that it is like any other game. To keep the season breathing, the Cougars (9-2) will have to at least slow down whats essentially a wing-T offense that lives on misdirection and employs an entire stable of ballcarriers; seven Cumberland players, led by freshman quarterback Adam Craig (821 yards and 21 touchdowns), have rushed for at least 300 yards. Craig accounted for seven touchdowns – five rushing and two passing – in a 56-28 dismantling of Saint Ambrose in the first round, a game in which Cumberlands All-American back Terrance Cobb didnt even play.
They get on the edge with great speed, they run great misdirection, they have a true freshman quarterback whos really a gritty playmaker, says Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley, whose Cougars are 4-1 on the road this season. Their All-American running back did not play at all last week, but they didnt miss a beat. Theyve got half a dozen guys who can do the job.
So its one more test for a Cougars defense thats surrendered 13 rushing touchdowns this season, and which saw a run-heavy offense in the opener against William Penn. In a 31-13 Cougars win, William Penn managed just 172 rushing yards.
(Cumberlands) runs the same kind of offense, but it is a little different, Bruce says. As long as we stay on our keys, we will shut them down. The thing with their offense is, they have players going in every different direction. So if we stay on our keys, they have really nowhere to go.
Its gonna be a tough task, but were gonna be able to do it, Mathewson says.
Thats a confidence born of having faced these sorts of challenges before. And of remembering the sting of losing to Robert Morris at home after leading by 10 in the fourth quarter.
That really just put a very bad taste in our mouth, and we kind of came together as a whole team but especially as a defense, Bruce says.
We just said enoughs enough. Were too talented, too physical to let teams do this, and ever since weve been rollin.