Capital Defense Gets Chance To Shine

Crusaders proving their defense is more than just a few big names

Oct. 9, 2007

By Pat Coleman

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Capital University had long been an afterthought in the powerful Ohio Athletic Conference. The Crusaders had won six conference games in coach Jim Collins' first four seasons before starting its turnaround in 2001 behind a star linebacker, Ron Swearingen.


Since then, the perception of Capital has been focused around the offense. The Crusaders have consistently scored more than 30 points per game each season, culminating with four Crusaders earning All-American honors on offense in 2006, including quarterback Rocky Pentello and receiver Derick Alexander.




It's time for that perception to change, as the Crusaders (5-0, 4-0 OAC) have given up just 23 points all season, with seven of those on a fumble return. And seeing as graduation and injuries have claimed 10 offensive starters from last season, when Capital made its second consecutive run to the Division III national quarterfinals, the defensive surge couldn't have come at a better time.


Except it's not a surge. Capital has been strong defensively during its national run as well. "I think they understood with all the seniors we lost on offense that they would have to step up," Collins says. "But we play great defense here. I think one of the things with our defensive players is they feel overshadowed by the Rocky Pentellos, Lewis Howes and Derick Alexanders."


Pentello was the opening day starter at quarterback five years running, including 2002, when he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. He threw for 3,625 yards and 36 touchdowns against eight interceptions as a senior in 2006 and finished with more than 12,000 career passing yards.  Alexander played in one game and has since been lost for the season with an injury, as has 2007 starting quarterback Marty Assmann (AZZ-min) and No. 2 receiver Evan Blake.


Capital insiders are hesitant to label anyone on the defensive side as a superstar, someone to follow in the footsteps of Swearingen or standout twin safeties Thom and Kyle Hausler. Statistically, however, cornerback James Starks stands atop the leaderboard in tackles with 26 (24 of them solo stops) and passes broken up with four.


"I think our guys, what they do is work hard and play together," Collins says. "That's what we've done here."


Starks, a senior and two-year starter, doesn't consider it a competition between defense and offense at this point. "It's not that we're trying to establish our defense's identity as much as we're trying to establish our own team identity -- not the Pentello and Hausler show."


If there's an identity defensively through five games, it's as run-stoppers. The Crusaders have allowed just 63 yards rushing, which translates to 12.6 yards per game, and average of about 15 inches per carry. Eighteen players have registered tackles for losses and 12 have sacks, with linemen Jonathan Spring and Nick Bucci leading the way with six apiece.


"We've always said it's a team defense," Collins says. "Ryan Redman transferred from Miami (Ohio) at defensive tackle. Matt Heagen at middle linebacker, Matt Coleman (at corner). I don't think it's one person, it's a team effort, and everyone's had that game when they're the leader."


Bucci picked up three sacks in the season opener, a 13-0 win against Wittenberg that signaled the Crusaders' new era. (Capital had averaged 53 points against Wittenberg the three previous seasons.) Spring had three sacks in a 40-0 win against Wilmington and five tackles for loss against Heidelberg the following week, with Starks adding three stops behind the line of scrimmage. Starks led the team in tackles against Marietta and linebacker Sam Jacobs and defensive end Zac McKenzie each had two sacks this past weekend against then-No. 24 John Carroll.


"We like going out there and setting the tone for the entire game," Starks says, "let them know we're going to dictate the pace of the game, keep the opposing defense on the field as long as possible."


That was what happened this past weekend against John Carroll, as the Crusaders, already playing without their top quarterback and two top receivers, lost starting running back Ty Parks in the first half as well. Capital outscored the Blue Streaks 28-6 in the second half of the 37-13 win.


"We did a great job on defense, a great job in the return game and great field position all game long," Collins says. "We wore John Carroll out and made some plays.


"What we've been able to do here the last three years is lost key people every year and our team has absorbed it. We have great depth and people understand what we expect out of them."


That expectation is handed down from the upperclassmen to the younger players and freshmen over the course of the summer. Division III's spring ball is limited to 16 non-contact practices and at most schools the seniors lead the team in summer workouts.


"I think we had a good amount of guys stay here to work out," Starks says. "Most of the juniors and seniors stayed down here and we got together every day at 9 and ran, then did our lifting. We did some player-run practices and 7-on-7 just to stay sharp and help freshmen learn the system, get guys in the mix."


But unlike other schools, where the players talk about their goals for the season, Capital's didn't change. "We thought we had the talent to win the national title but it didn't work out the past two years against Mount Union. We think we have the talent to make that run in the OAC and the postseason -- our goals really haven't changed at all, with or without certain people."


Also unlike other schools, teams in the Ohio Athletic Conference are guaranteed to face Mount Union every season at least once, twice if they hope to reach the Stagg Bowl. The OAC's runners-up have performed very well in the NCAA playoffs since they expanded from 16 to 28 after the 1998 season, then 32. While Mount Union has gone 29-3 in the playoffs over that time, the rest of the OAC is 11-1 against teams other than the Purple Raiders.


"I think there's a bunch of games that feel like playoff games, like playoff-caliber games," says Collins. "There's three, four, five games on our schedule every year that have that kind of playoff atmosphere and pressure. The players see the talent lining up across from you is the same as we see in the playoffs."


Although the Crusaders play Ohio Northern (4-1, 3-1 after a loss to Mount Union last week), the Mount Union game on Oct. 27 has to stick in players and coaches' minds. The past two Capital seasons ended in the national quarterfinals with three-point losses at the Purple Raiders.


"That's been the problem," says Collins. "We haven't been able to make that one more play in order to win the game. We forced a big interception last year but you have to treat that game like every other game: force them to make mistakes, execute your offense and defense, win the kicking game, win the turnover battle. Like you can do that in every other game, you need to do that against them.


"They're so talented that being able to do that is tough. Players have to understand that the challenge is bigger but the principles are the same."


"They're a great team, Coach (Larry) Kehres has done a great job keeping them sharp, it seems," says Starks. "But we can't focus on what they did last week to Ohio Northern."