A few of the Montana State University football team's defensive standouts spoke after Tuesday morning's practice of wanting to make a voluminous statement that resonated throughout Bobcat Stadium during Wednesday afternoon's inter-squad scrimmage.
The defense did more than make a statement; the Bobcats in blue dominated.
The Bobcat defense registered five sacks, had 15 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, intercepted three passes and forced two fumbles, recovering one. The defensive units also limited the opposing offenses to just three successful conversions in 17 third-down tries and, more importantly, no touchdowns.
To know just how dominant the Bobcats' No. 1 and No. 2 defenses played Wednesday, consider this: the top two offensive units managed just eight first downs in a total of 14 series (60 plays) against their defensive counterparts and reached the red zone just once. Take away the rushing yards compiled by the third-string offense and the Bobcats in white averaged less than 1.5 yards per rush.
A pair of 37-yard field goals by senior Jason Cunningham was the only scoring allowed all afternoon.
"Gosh, this felt good; we wanted to come out and make a statement playing against the best offensive team in the Big Sky Conference," said junior defensive tackle Zach Minter, who had three tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 1.5 sacks. "We said as a group, if we beat this team today, we will be the best defense in the conference and I think we did that today."
"We've been close to putting it all together and today it all came together at the same time," said senior middle linebacker Clay Bignell, the captain of the defense. "Everybody was on the same page. (Defensive) line was getting push, linebackers were making their reads, doing their jobs, the DBs (defensive backs) were playing great in coverage. It all came together today."
In two scrimmages thus far during MSU's fall camp 2011, the Bobcat defense has allowed just one touchdown despite numerous trips to the red zone by the offense.
"I like the commitment that our kids are putting forth," said MSU defensive coordinator Jamie Marshall. "We are really, really working hard, the kids are, on improving on where we were last year.
"It's nice to have a day like today where it comes out and everything is starting to come together. We still have some things we have to work on, but I'm really happy with what I saw today."
Last season, MSU allowed 383 yards and 26 points per game during its 9-3 campaign in 2010.
On the scrimmage's first series, the first-team offense looked like it would put together a successful drive. Junior running back Tray Robinson carried the ball twice for four yards before sophomore quarterback DeNarius McGhee threaded a laser to junior wide receiver Kruiz Siewing for a 10-yard gain and a first down.
Then the Bobcat defense cranked up the intensity.
Three plays after Siewing's first down grab, Minter and junior defensive end Caleb Schreibeis blew through the Bobcat offensive line for a touch sack that resulted in a 14-yard loss and a Rory Perez punt.
During the second-string's first action, C.J. Palmer had a pair of nice runs that netted a first down. But then the pass rush went back to work, as sophomore defensive end Brad Daly exploded around the outside edge for a touch sack of junior Grayson Galloway, netting an 11-yard loss in the process.
The first team took the field again with similar results.
On the opening play of the series, McGhee ran an option, but was stripped. Senior defensive end John Laidet recovered the ball, but the officials ruled him down by contact.
McGhee was down by contact each of the next two plays as well. Junior nose tackle Christian Keli'I and junior linebacker Jody Owens shared a sack that netted a 13-yard loss. Minter chased the offense off the field with a sack resulting in a five-yard loss and a 4th & 25 hole.
"That makes all the difference in the world if you can get four-man pressure," Marshall said. "If you're running a 4-3 defense, the front four have to be guys who can bring it."
"I was very concerned about (the front four pressure), I wrote it down in my notes, at least in concern from an offensive standpoint," said MSU head coach Rob Ash. "From a defensive standpoint it was great. It's hard being a head coach because I never know whether to be happy or sad. But the front four guys on defense did a nice job."
The No. 1 and No. 2 offenses went three-and-out on each of their next series as well.
Galloway completed 10-of-14 passes for a scrimmage-high 121 yards in leading the second-string, but managed to help his unit net just two first downs in six series. The 2s were just 1-for-7 on third down conversions.
The first-team offense finally got rolling a little bit on their fifth series.
McGhee, who finished 8-for-10 for 112 yards, opened the drive by hitting senior wideout Elvis Akpla for a 45-yard gain on an out-and-go route.
On the next play, he again hit Akpla, who finished with four catches for a scrum-high 89 yards, for a 14-yard gain that earned a first down and put the offense in the red zone for the first time. Robinson ran for a gain of three yards to push the ball to the defense's 8-yard line.
But the defense would not break. Sophomore running back Cody Kirk took a snap out of the shotgun and attempted to throw a pass, but it was tipped at the line and intercepted by Bignell for the linebacker's second forced takeaway in as many series.
"We pride ourselves on getting off the field in the red zone so no matter how tired we are, when we get down here, we just have to get out," said Bignell, who forced Palmer to fumble one series before his interception.
Wednesday's defensive performance was perhaps an eye-opener for a Montana State offense that ranked fourth nationally by averaging 452 yards of total offense a game last season.
McGhee, the Co-Offensive Player of the Year in the BSC in 2010, was visibly frustrated by his unit's performance, but was quick to credit a defense that never stopped bringing the heat.
"I mean, the defense played well, but (the offense) didn't get any kind of tempo going," McGhee said. "That's what happens when you come out flat. You can't ever come out flat against anyone. We came in confident, but we just couldn't get it going. Our front four, they're tough. John Laidet, Caleb Schreibeis, Chris Keli'I, Zach Minter...all four of those guys straight got after it today. That's exactly what happens when you come out flat. They get on you hard."
Montana State Scrimmage
Rushing (46-126) - Shawn Johnson 13-50, Kerry Sloan 8-12, C.J. Palmer 7-23, Tray Robinson 6-19, Te'Shon Burton 2-25, Grayson Galloway 3-21, Cody Kirk 1-4, David Dash 1-(-9), Jake Bleskin 1-4, DeNarius McGhee 4-(-23).
Passing (21-32-0-3 300) - DeNarius McGhee 8-10-0-0 112, Grayson Galloway 10-14-0-1, 121, Jake Bleskin 2-6-0-1 39, Te'Shon Burton 1-1-0-0 26, Cody Kirk 0-1-0-1.
Receiving (21-300) - Elvis Akpla 4-89, Chase Young 4-44, David Dash 3-22, Kruiz Siewing 3-41, C.J. Palmer 2-16, Michael Perryman 1-26, Tiai Salanoa 1-22, Matt Thibault 1-17, Kevin Steiner 1-8, Kerry Sloan 1-3.
Sacks - Zach Minter (1.5 sacks for -19 loss), Brad Daly (1 for -11), Na'a Moeakiola (1 for -2), Caleb Schrebeis (1/2 sack for -14), Christian Keli'I and Jody Owens (1/2 sack each for -13).
Tackles for Loss - Zach Minter (3.5), Taylor Sheridan (2), Brad Daly (2), John Laidet, Clay Bignell, Preston Gale, Na'a Moeakiola Heath Hunter, James Nelson (.5), Griffin Woodahl (.5), Jody Owens (.5), Christian Keli'I (.5), Caleb Schrebeis (.5)
‘Cat Tracks: The No. 3 offense made the most of their first opportunity of the day. Freshman running back Shawn Johnson weaved his way to 46 yards on five carries during his squad's first series, including a 26-yard gain, the longest by any back Wednesday. But once inside the 10-yard line, the No. 3 defense stood stout, forcing the offense to settle for a field goal, the first score of the day... On the final punt (and final play) of the day, Johnson took Perez's kick nearly 90 yards for a touchdown, breaking no less than five tackles in the process.... Freshman transfer quarterback Te'Shon Burton saw his first live action of the fall. Burton, who had the cast he was wearing because of a fractured right hand removed, ran the ball twice for 25 yards and hit freshman wide receiver Michael Perryman for a 26-yard gain on Burton's only pass attempt of the day... Na'a Moeakiola and Steven Bethley had interceptions. Moeakiola also had a sack that netted a loss of two yards... Freshman Taylor Sheridan had two tackles for loss.