Thursday, October 16, 2008

Historic Axers

Northern Arizona's defense, which will be on full display in Holt Arena for Saturday night's homecoming contest with Idaho State, is on the brink of an historic season. The Axers have given up just 43 yards rushing in their first six games this season (7.2 yards per game), an average of .3 yards per carry. The FCS record for rushing defense was established by Alabama A&M in 2002, who gave up 39.7 yards per game. Marist, that reknown football powerhouse from Poughkeepsie, NY, holds the NCAA record for average yards per carry, at 1.3, set in 1997.

While NAU still has a gauntlet of Big Sky heavyweights coming up (Montana, Montana State, Weber State and Eastern Washington), the Axers still have a reasonable chance at destroying FCS records for rushing defense.

NAU leads the Big Sky in total, scoring and rushing defense. Yet the Axers have only one player in the top 50 in the league in tackles -- LB Anthony Llanos, who ranks No. 49. And the Axers have held four of their six opponents to negative rushing yards this season, yet they have no one in the top ten in the conference in tackles for a loss.

How to explain these statistical oddities? Well, for one thing NAU is shutting down opponents so thoroughly, they aren't getting enough plays for the Axers to record a lot of tackles. The Axers have run an average of 14 more plays a game than their opponents. But clearly, NAU's defense is the epitome of that tiresome but true coaching cliche -- "a team effort." The Lumberjacks list 16 players with 10 or more tackles; 14 players with at least half a sack; and 16 players with at least half a tackle for a loss.

There are some stars on this NAU defense: All-American defensive back KJ Gerard, who has added four interceptions to his career total of 18 this year; and defensive ends Mike Battisti (5 sacks, 6 tackles for a loss) and Kyle Rath (4.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups) will all get heavy post-season honors consideration. But the key to the success of NAU's unique double-flex defense, which features three down linemen, three linebackers and three safeties, has been the absolute unpredictability of who will be making the big play on any given down.

NAU defensive coordinator Corey Battoon, who has been on the Jerome Souers staff in some capacity since it formed in Flagstaff 11 years ago, should be able to parlay this defense's success into a head coaching job somewhere next year, if he so desires. Assuming, of course, that the tough closing schedule doesn't expose the Axer defense as a mirage. But when you consider that only two teams so far have rushed for positive yardage against NAU, and one of them was then 15th-ranked Arizona State who still was held under 100 yards, you have a tendency to take the Axer D seriously.

How Bout them Wildcats: Weber State won last week, despite terrible field conditions and being on the road. What is really remarkable, though, is that the Wildcats won the week after beating Montana. Prior to the WSU-MSU game in a Bozeman blizzard Saturday, six of the last eight Big Sky teams to beat Montana lost the following week. Weber was one of the exceptions to that rule -- the last time Weber beat the Griz, in 1998, they won the following week. Then, they lost five in a row. The fact that the Wildcats have at least temporarily avoided the post-Griz hangover should really legitimize them as a Big Sky contender. We'll certainly find out more when NAU and Weber get together next week.

Finally....What a Dope I Was. Rule No. 1: When Montana loses, it bounces back. Rule No. 2: When picking the winner of the Montana-EWU game, refer back to Rule 1. Instead, I looked at how the Griz had given up 78 points the previous two weeks and went with the Eagles at home. Silly me. There is a reason they call them "dynasties." When a "dynasty" team loses, it bounces back, and sure enough, when I looked up the word "dynasty" in the dictionary this week, there was that damn Grizzly bear grinning back at me.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun!

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