NEW BRITAIN - There was plenty for the Central Connecticut State football team to celebrate as it ran into its locker room on Saturday afternoon.
There was the 28-0 win over Long Island University, the Blue Devils’ fourth in a row. There was the fact that CCSU (7-1, 3-0) was still unbeaten in Northeast Conference play as it continues its quest to be just the third team since 2010 - Duquesne did so in 2015 and the Blue Devils did it in 2017 - to win the NEC outright. There were the FCS national rankings that had CCSU at No. 23 and No. 24, ones that would later have the program at No. 19, tying its highest-ever ranking, just a few days later.
But even with all the positives, head coach Ryan McCarthy wasn’t particularly happy with the way the offense had played.
Sure the Blue Devils scored at least 28 points for the sixth time this season, but they also managed just 321 yards of total offense, 108 of which came on the ground. Both were season lows.
CCSU also squandered multiple opportunities to take advantage of short fields. The Blue Devils, who entered the game as the NEC’s highest scoring team, didn’t find the end zone until the second quarter was almost half over, when Enyce Walker carried the ball in from the 1-yard line.
Instead, when McCarthy talked about his team postgame, he turned his attention to his defense.
“They were lights out,” McCarthy said. “Our defense is playing sound. There’s not a lot of breakdowns in terms of mental errors. I think they’re playing extremely well.”
In fact, the unit has been playing well all season and has continued to show it is one of the best defenses in the country. If the film doesn’t show it, which it does anyway, CCSU certainly has the stats to back it up.
Through eight games this season, the Blue Devils lead the NEC in a number of defensive categories, taking the top spot in total defense (268.8 yards per game), scoring defense (17.2 points per game), rushing defense (75.0 ypg) and interceptions (12), while placing second in pass defensive efficiency (112.1 ) and third in sacks with 19.
Nationally, CCSU ranks second in the FCS, behind only No. 4 Kennesaw State, in total defense, while ranking fourth behind James Madison, Sam Houston State and Harvard in rushing defense.
The Blue Devils are tied for second with Mississippi Valley State for defensive touchdowns with four. CCSU has returned two interceptions and two fumbles for scores this season. Only Grambling has more with five defensive scores.
The Blue Devils are also tied for third in the nation in interceptions with Alcorn State and behind only University of the Incarnate Word (16) and North Carolina Central (13).
“I feel like our whole defensive unit works hand in hand from the pass rush all the way up to the secondary,” cornerback Dexter Lawson Jr. said. “The pass rush gets back there and puts pressure on the quarterback and then in the secondary you got the Jack Boys back there and we’re just going to take the ball away when the ball is in the air. And of course, our linebackers are aggressive and they come down and make tackles.”
The Jack Boys - Lawson, fellow corner Tajik Bagley, safety D.J. Exilhomme, Jahlil Brown and Kendall Coles - as the secondary likes to refer to itself, is certainly a big part of what makes CCSU so successful on defense.
The Blue Devils don’t try to make things too complicated. They often line up in a 3-4 front and man-to-man coverage and allow their playmakers to, well in fact, make plays by beating the guy in front of them. Only three opponents - Fordham, Merrimack and Eastern Michigan - have scored more than two touchdowns against the defense.
All four of CCSU’s defensive scores have come one of the Jack Boys.
Lawson returned an interception 48 yards against Fordham in the season opener. Exilhomme had a 3-yard fumble return against Merrimack. Coles took a 30-yard interception return against Valparaiso back to the end zone. Last week, Exilhomme returned a fumble 40 yards for a touchdown in a 52-14 victory over Bryant.
“We’re always pushing each other,” Exilhomme said. “We’re always making sure everyone knows what the game plan is each week. We’re constantly in the film room, asking a lot of questions about what needs to be done so it’s done the right way.”
And that’s how the Blue Devils treated a team in the Sharks who has yet to win a game this season, their first as a combined program of the two Long Island campuses.
CCSU allowed just 84 total yards against LIU, the fewest the Blue Devils have given up since limiting Merrimack to 38 yards in 2007. Of those 84 yards, only nine came on the ground, making it the sixth time CCSU has held an opponent to 100 rushing yards or less this season and the fourth straight game holding an opposing team below 300 yards of total offense.
There was also the fact that LIU ran 52 plays, but crossed onto the Blue Devils’ side of the field just four times, one of which was the result of a personal foul. Overall, the Sharks averaged a mere 1.6 yards per play with 10 of its 12 drives lasting five plays or less, while turning it over twice on a Lawson interception and fumble recovery by Frederick Allen III after a Tre Jones strip-sack.
“We just knew we had to play our game and control the game and that’s what we did,” Dawson said.
And that’s what CCSU will have to continue to do going forward. In a season where the Blue Devils have had a chance to show people they’re worthy of the recent respect and recognition they’ve been getting, sticking to what they do best is what is going to help them the most. So far, as most opponents have learned, that’s playing strong, consistent defense.
It’s just that a larger audience is finally noticing.
“We just have to stay focused,” Exilhomme said. “And follow that plan that’s in place.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org