NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Oftentimes the key to winning football games starts with the battle in the trenches. For Tennessee State the defensive line has been a huge part of the success of Big Blue this season.
If you look at the tackles for loss leaders in the OVC, the first four names all have one thing in common; they all play for Tennessee State. On the list are defensive lineman Anthony Bass (9.5), Marquaveus Jackson (8.5) and Samquan Evans (8.0) as well as middle linebacker Nick Thrasher (8.5).
“The best pass defense is the pass rush,” said coach Rod Reed. “When you’re able to put pressure on the passer and make him uneasy in the pocket and move things around, it makes things easier for your secondary.”
Not only does the unit rank highly in tackles for loss they also boast the best pass rusher in the conference in Anthony Bass. The Clarksville, Tenn. native has registered 6.0 sacks on the season in his first full year as a starting defensive end.
Although Bass may appear soft spoken off the field, on the field he’s a quarterback’s nightmare.
“I’m all about business once I step on the field,” said Bass about his focus on gamedays. “It’s just a mindset to get to the quarterback.”
But it isn’t just Bass that’s getting to opponents quarterbacks, the unit as a whole has an OVC leading 23 sacks, including four in last week’s 29-15 win over UT Martin.
Along with Bass’s league leading total, Jackson ranks fifth in the conference with 4.5 sacks and fellow defensive end Antonio Harper has the seventh best league total, 3.5 sacks.
The group has grown together from offseason workouts to where they are now and they say that those long days in the heat built their bond on the field.
“It just shows me the grind in the offseason pays off and that everybody was really working hard to meet one common goal, to win a championship,” said Evans. “I could tell by each of every defensive lineman workouts it was going to be a great season.”
Even when the unit makes mistakes, they know with the teammates around them plays will be made in their place. It’s the ultimate trust.
“I know they got my back all the time,” Evans said about his fellow lineman. ”I know if I miss my tackle I know somebody is right there like a split second away, not even a split second, like the lowest millisecond you could ever think of."
According to coach Reed the reason for the unit’s success is simple, yet for opposing offenses it’s the most complex to stop.
“They’re relentless, they’re just refusing to be blocked right now,” Reed said.
For defensive coordinators it’s a dream come true to see the time the opponents quarterback has to find open receivers diminishes.
“We’re blessed to have them,” said co-defensive coordinator Justin Roberts. ”It makes you feel good on the backend knowing you’re going to have pressure on the quarterback and get him to make some bad decisions.”
The Tigers’ defensive backs have capitalized on the mistakes by the pressured signal callers, to a tune of an OVC best eight interceptions, with three returned for touchdowns.
Most importantly the defense as a whole ranks second in total defense nationally for FCS programs. It was only last week the Tigers laid claim to the best defense in the entire country.
‘We’re going to come back and get the number one spot,” said Bass, knowing the challenge that presents itself this afternoon.
Today, the Big Blue defense will face their toughest challenge yet, Eastern Illinois. The Panthers offensive pedigree is just as impressive as the Tigers’ defensive prowess. As a team, their offense is the FCS’ elite team ranking first in total offense and boasting the best quarterback, statistics wise, in the country in Jimmy Garoppolo and the country’s best receiver in Erik Lora.
On the year, the senior signal caller has compiled 2,735 yards passing along with an FCS leading 31 touchdown passes. Graoppolo’s favorite target Erik Lora ranks third in the country with 928 yards receiving and an FCS best 13 touchdowns.
So once again the defensive unit has to prove they’re up to the task, something they’ve done all season, and like all those tasks they expect to exceed expectations just as they’ve done time and time again.
”Our defense is better than their offense that’s all I’m going to say,” Evans said about today’s matchup. ”I hope (Garoppolo) is ready because he’s going to be in a world of trouble come Saturday.”
If the stats are any indication; today’s matchup of strengths should be one for the ages and Tennessee State’s defensive line will be a huge factor in determining the outcome. Which is something they don’t mind at all.
“We’re going to go out and do our jobs and when it’s time for plays to be made by the defensive line, we’re going to go out and make those plays,” Bass said.