Who We Thought They Were?

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One more sound defensive performance against UTEP on Saturday at HSR, and it will be safe to declare that the Owls are trending upward on that side of the football. That it took eight losses and a sorely needed off week to cultivate the defensive reputation most everyone expected of this unit is an entirely different subject, so let's revel in the progress, shall we?

Nothing good came out of the loss of Sr. FS Andrew Sendejo, but there has been some intrigue. After So. FS Xavier Webb scuffled in his first career start, Jr. SS Chris Jones switched positions in the secondary, leading the Owls to stumble upon consistency. So. KAT Travis Bradshaw (29 tackles) has been sensational the last two weekends, and Jones has been better at free safety than he was at strong safety. The strong safety rotation of Max Anyiam and Willie Garley has been functional, and the corners have kept their head above water despite the loss of Fr. Phillip Gaines. Again, the manner in which the Owls close this season could provide a preview of what is to come when the team hits the field in the spring.

That scenario holds especially true on the defensive line, which has played splendidly out of the break. The starting foursome of Jr. DEs Scott Solomon and Cheta Ozougwu, Fr. DT Alex Lowry and So. NG Michael Smith have combined for 37 tackles against SMU and Tulane. Smith and Lowry have been disruptive up the middle while Solomon and Ozougwu have been active on the edges. With So. DTs John Gioffre and Brian Stacey less than 100% healthy, Solomon played inside for lengthy stretches in the second half against the Green Wave and he didn't miss a beat, pressuring Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin into a series of incomplete passes in the fourth quarter. With Jr. DE Kramer Lucio (calf, ankle) likely out for the final two games of this season and Fr. DE Cody Bauer poised to provide the quality depth Lucio suppied, Solomon could log even more snaps at tackle against the Miners and Cougars.

However the rotation unfolds, the Owls need to maintain their defensive momentum this weekend. Against SMU and Tulane the Owls allowed just 5.4 yards/play, a significant drop from the 6.7 yards/play they surrendered through their first eight games. The defense has been particularly effective against the run of late, allowing the Ponies and Green Wave to rush for only 3.4 yards/attempt after surrendering 4.9 yards/attempt heading into the off week.

That small sample size will be put to the test against Miners Jr. RB Donald Buckram, who is second nationally in rushing at 142.2 yards/game. Buckram has posted 200-yard games against UH (32 carries, 262 yards, 4 TDs), Tulane (34 carries, 234 yards, 3 TDs) and SMU (33 carries, 241 yards, TD), and has averaged 201 rushing yards over the last four games. The Miners have dropped three of those games, so their dependence on Buckram hasn't necessarily yielded success. But the way the Owls have trended lately, slowing Buckram would provide another psychological boost as this difficult season draws to a merciful close.

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The improved line play has been a positive, especially since all four of the starters will be back next season. Solomon's disruptive play on the inside vs. Tulane seems to suggest perhaps the coaches knew what they were doing with that move.

We still need to figure out how to get more production from the LB and SS positions, and better ball play from the corners. Hopefully we'll see progress there in the final two games.

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