The Stetson football team will have no time to ease into its first Pioneer Football League schedule as the Hatters welcome two-time defending champion San Diego to Spec Martin Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m. The Toreros, who shared the league crown in both 2011 and 2012, topped the PFL’s 2013 preseason poll as well.
The Hatters will hope to capitalize on yet another boisterous DeLand crowd after each of the team’s first two home games sold out. In fact, of the 11 Division I football schools in the state of Florida, Stetson is the only one that has sold out all of its 2013 home games thus far. A small number of tickets remain for Saturday’s tilt and can be purchased online at GoHatters.com/tix or by calling 386-738-HATS (4287).
“Clearly the energy in the stadium is a big boost to our team,” Stetson head coach Roger Hughes said. “If you give great effort and don’t make mental mistakes, that gives you a chance to win the game. Having that energy in the stadium certainly helps the effort portion of it. We know our fans are into it. We know that a lot of people are following us and want to be a part of the program. I think that motivates our kids.”
One thing Stetson has on its side is the play of “dawg” safety Donald Payne who has already claimed an unprecedented three PFL Defensive Player of the Week awards. Payne’s latest honor came following last week’s game against Birmingham-Southern in which the Fayetteville, Ga. native made seven tackles, 1.5 of them for a loss, including a sack. Payne also forced two Panther fumbles, recovering one of them for a touchdown, intercepted a pass, broke up another and had a pass pressure. Payne ranks fourth in the nation for his seven total passes defended in three games (2.33 per game).
Payne has been a leader of a young defense that has been solid in several key areas where a veteran’s resilience is required.
Stetson has been stout in the red zone, allowing just five scores in 10 chances, a 50-percent ratio which ties for second in the country. The Hatters have yielded two field goals, three rushing touchdowns and no red zone passing touchdowns thus far in 2013 when their backs have been pushed to the proverbial wall.
Not only has Stetson’s defense been great under red zone pressure but it has also been great under third down pressure. Opponents have converted on just 14-of-49 third down attempts against the Hatters in 2013, their 28.6-percent mark ranking 10th in the country. Helping Stetson to this lofty number has been great work on first and second down. A remarkable 67.3-percent of the time (33-of-49) opponents have faced a third-and-long situation against Stetson, needing seven yards or more to convert the first down.
“We do use pressure schemes and one of the young men who has been pretty good in those pressure schemes is Donald Payne,” Hughes said of the unit. “He plays at a different speed level than most of the rest of our defense and so far he’s played at a different speed level than some of the guys we’ve gone against. That certainly shows up.
“Generally, we’ve been able to create situations where it’s third and a little bit longer. It allows you to do other things because you’re probably going to see a pass. If you can make teams one dimensional like that, it certainly helps the defense. Part of that is being able to shut down the run and it all gets down to first down. If you’re giving up four yards on first down, then you’re already under that third-and-seven mark.”
The Hatters also rank eighth nationally in passing efficiency defense at 97.49. That rating is boosted by the team’s five interceptions which ranks 18th in the nation. Chris Atkins has a pair of those picks along with Payne while Bobby Jakubek can claim the other one. Atkins returned one of those interceptions 50 yards for a touchdown last week against Birmingham-Southern. The Hatters have an impressive total of three defensive scores through three games.
Offensively, the Hatters have done a fine job of spreading the ball around. A total of 14 different Hatters have made at least one reception this year. Only Rob Coggin (14) has reached double figures for catches thus far out of the team’s 67 completions. Six different players have made between five and eight grabs on the season. The rushing column has also seen some balance as Darius Chapes (25), Ryan Tentler (24) and Jerami Singleton (23) are in a virtual dead-heat for the most attempts. Dre Long also has 17 carries this year and started the season opener against Warner.
Tentler’s rushing totals have benefitted greatly by him only being sacked once. Stetson stands eighth nationally and first in the PFL for the fewest sacks allowed.
“It keeps a lot of people happy because they’re touching the ball,” Hughes said. “Given that we’re in the Florida heat and humidity, we need to play a lot of guys. They do wear out with our fast-paced no-huddle offense.
“I look at the running back situation as a good and bad thing. We’re waiting for one guy to surface to be ‘the guy’. I don’t want to play three guys back there. All have played well enough to warrant playing, but no one has stepped up to the forefront to take the whole load. Generally, if you have a pair and a spare, you’re good. Right now, we’re running all three quite a bit because each has a little bit of something that he’s good at.
“The other thing that has helped spread it out is that our fullbacks have become pretty good pass receptors. Mike Yonkers and Cole Mazza are very athletic and have great hands. We need to get them involved in the run game in addition to the passing game.”
This week’s foe, the San Diego Toreros, will be a challenge for the Hatters. USD comes into the game at 1-2 but the two losses came against then-No. 14 Cal Poly and a Harvard team which was 8-2 a year ago and should be one of the Ivy League’s top teams again. The Toreros topped the PFL’s preseason coaches’ poll with 111 points, just outdistancing the 110 points for next week’s Hatter foe, Butler. USD has won at least a share of the PFL title six times in the past 10 years.
The Toreros ride a six-game PFL winning streak into this contest. Senior signal caller Mason Mills is closing in on all of USD’s major career passing records, completing 703-of-1,058 career passes for 8,488 yards with 66 touchdowns. USD has proved to be a balanced team on offense through three weeks, passing the ball 113 times and running it 106 times, all adding up to 455.7 yards per game of total offense. Tailbacks Joe Ferguson and Kevnn James are averaging an astounding 7.9 and 7.8 yards per carry, respectively.
USD’s defense has some talented personnel, but has allowed 38.3 points per game and 466.3 yards per game. The team has yet to make an interception and has recovered just one fumble.
“The good news is that our kids will have a sense of who the perennial favorite is in the conference and the level we have to play at,” Hughes said of this week’s formidable foe. “I just hope that our non-conference games have given them a chance to understand the physicality of the game.
“They (San Diego) use a lot of motions and shifts, so, on defense, our alignments are crucial. We have to stay in the right gaps and make them one dimensional. Our challenge against San Diego is that they’re big and physical up front and they try to leverage you. We have to be alignment and assignment perfect to make sure we have a chance to stop them.
“They’re not a complex scheme on defense – they’re a 4-3 scheme – but they do pressure a lot more than we’ve seen. There’s a lot of blitzing going on and they’re very good all over. Their linemen are quick. Their linebackers are very good, especially Zach Devaney. He’s outstanding. Their secondary is pretty athletic too. Overall, they’re a pretty good team and we’re going to have to make sure we take care of the football, be good on special teams and hopefully we find a way to hang in there until the fourth quarter.”
Stetson hopes that another capacity crowd at DeLand’s Spec Martin Stadium will help the hometown Hatters hang in there and perhaps produce a rousing upset to start off Stetson’s PFL history.