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Lyco defensive line the foundation of the nation's third-ranked defense
November 4, 2011 - Mitch Rupert
Frank Sheptock just put his head down, his chiseled chin resting against his chest. Three reporters and one sports information director sat on the edge of their seats waiting for the answer to a most basic, but important, question to the Wilkes University head coach.
He paused for a few seconds sorting his response in his mind. Under his breath, almost sheepishly, Sheptock said, “What kind of problems don’t they pose?”
Then he began to think again. Sheptock knew his MAC-leading rushing offense was in for a sturdy test when it faced Lycoming and its dominating defensive front two days after that conversation with reporters. And he knew what eventually happened in that 40-7 loss to Lycoming was very possible.
It’s why he took his time in trying to find the words to describe the problems the Warriors’ defensive front four posed to his Colonels team. Sheptock is a defensive-minded coach, a former three-time All-American at Bloomsburg University. He admitted before the game, and after Lycoming’s dismantling, that this Warriors defensive group was fun to watch.
The starting front four of Anthony Marascio, Roger Jayne, Dwight Hentz and Nate Oropollo is the foundation to a Lycoming defense ranked third in the country in yards allowed per game. They’re ranked sixth in the NCAA in rushing yards allowed per game at just over 67. They’re ranked fourth in passing efficiency defense and sixth in total pass defense.
The numbers quantify just how well the defense has played. But it’s your eyes that tell the story of just how dominant a group the front four is. It takes 60 minutes of watching those four starters ä and backups Braden Zeiner, Tyler Geis and Zack McMenamin ä to fully comprehend and appreciate the dominance displayed this year.
It’s like watching Michaelangelo carving out the Statue of David ... You know, only with shoulder pads and full contact.
It’s a group chiseled out of the ideas and theories of a defensive coordinator ä Steve Wiser ä who’s in his 38th year of curating defenses. In a world where bigger is almost always better, this is a group who’s defied that logic. It’s a group that collectively is undersized considering it’s playing in the trenches of an NCAA football game.
But that’s where they’ve already won. It’s a group who is just as strong as the offensive linemen staring them in the face, and a group who’s even faster. Just ask Rowan and its offensive line, which averaged 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, how being bigger fared against a defensive line that averages just 6-feet, 240 pounds.
This is the transition, though, Wiser has been trying to make, being quicker, sideline to sideline. So of his four starting defensive linemen, three are converted linebackers Wiser convinced to “put their knuckles in the ground.”
“We have a very unique group,” Wiser said earlier this week. “It’s fun. You can be more creative and do a lot of different things. You can do some things you can’t do when you don’t have kids who are as athletic as this.”
You might picture Wiser in Dr. Frankenstein mode, sitting in a dark room illuminated by only the lightning outside as he laughs an evil laugh devising new, inventive ways to send blitzes. Because with a defensive front like this, they can be counted on to handle the blocking up front, allowing linebackers to roam free.
It’s really the exact opposite, though, for Wiser. He hates blitzing. He wants to control the line of scrimmage with those four guys who are quicker and stronger than an opponent’s offensive front. He dials up blitzes about as often as the Steelers dial up a new head coach.
“I think our beauty is in our simplicity,” Lycoming head coach Mike Clark said. “Our blitz percentage on the year is incredibly low. Those guys can get after the quarterback, so you can play more coverage. If you can’t run on us ä which people struggle to do ä and you end up in third-and-long, and we can get to the passer with four people instead of having to send five or six people, that plays into our hands well.”
Wiser looks for what he calls “positive penetration” from a defensive front. The ability to get into the backfield, whether it’s a step or 5 yards deep doesn’t matter. That positive penetration causes disruption. And with this group of four down linemen, Wiser has a mix of specific skills that just seem to mesh well together.
There’s Hentz in the middle, the 255-pound hammer, the immovable object that does more than just clog up running lanes. He’s in the quarterback’s face as often his his facemask is.
Then there’s Jayne, the former high school linebacker who plays with a certain leverage cultivated from his days as a wrestler at Lake-Lehman High School. He has the quickness off the ball and hand-fighting ability to get offensive linemen into a disadvantageous position to where he can make his move to the backfield.
Oropollo is the runt of the group at just 210 pounds. But all you need to know about Oropollo comes from one story, the one in which he and current starting tailback Parker Showers lined up in a footrace a couple springs ago just after Oropollo had been moved to the defensive line. When the two ä who happen to be cousins ä hit the finish line Oropollo was ahead. It’s a story that brings a smile to the defensive end’s face, and one which explains his presence in a nutshell. He’s the speed rusher, the guy who’s too fast to the corner for a 280-pound offensive linemen to catch.
And then there’s Marascio, the Captain America, do-it-all player which Clark just calls “unique”. Delaware Valley head coach Jim Clements, whose Aggies are the next to try their hand at moving the ball against the Warriors, said Marascio’s been a pain in Delaware Valley’s side since he showed up in Williamsport. He was the one who was supposed to be a starter at defensive tackle this year and a player Wiser said could have been “one of the best in the country” if he had played defensive tackle.
Things changed when Dillon Rudloff needed back surgery and was lost for the season. Marascio moved to defensive end and has put up All-American caliber numbers. He’s tied for ninth in the country averaging one sack per game. He’s fourth in the country averaging 2.38 tackles for loss per game.
“All of us will either play tackle or end,” Jayne said. “Anthony’s just the best at it. But from a versatility standpoint, we can get the matchups we want in either a passing down or to stop the run.”
“I think we have the best defensive football player in the MAC,” Clark said. “He’s really a complete football player. All of those guys are like that. Roger’s an all-league player. Nate is an an incredible athlete. Dwight is a big, strong guy.
“But Anthony is unique.”
Collectively, though, they form the best defensive line in the MAC, each with a special skill set that interacts with
the guy next to him. And each interchangeable. Marascio plays end and tackle. Hentz and Jayne can both move to the outside depending on what kind of look they’re getting from an offense.
And collectively they’ve combined for 37 tackles for loss totaling 190 yards in lost production in eight games. They’ve also combined for 16 1/2 sacks.
To put it in perspective, 37 tackles for loss is about a half of football worth of plays. When you factor in the entire team, Lycoming has recorded 62 tackles for loss totaling 294 yards. Sixty-two plays that end in negative yardage is about a game’s worth of plays.
It’s a sick number.
“We just mesh well,” Oropollo said. “We’re not going to be able to throw our weight around because we don’t have any weight. But we saw what we have and we put it all together. Obviously, Marascio can pretty much just do what he wants because he’s so strong. Dwight pushes people around and Roger is all over the place. It works that well for us. We all saw our place (on the line) and we took it.”
There seems to be one common consensus amongst the players and coaches involved in sculpting this masterpiece defense. Marascio is the cog that makes it go.
The attention he generates is well-earned. At times it’s like he’s in the offensive huddle hearing the play call and snap count. He plays with a ferocity that opposing quarterbacks learn to fear by about the second quarter.
“He just pushes the play and bounces it 5-yards deep, or makes a great move on the tackle and gets a sack,” Oropollo said. “He makes plays that you just don’t think he can make. It’s cool to watch and cool to be around because it makes you a better player as well.”
“When we lost Dillon Rudloff and had to move Anthony outside, at the time it was a little disappointing because we thought he, as a defensive tackle, is a complete mismatch,” Clark said. “But now you don’t know where the kids is going to be. Maybe in hindsight it’s a blessing in disguise. Dillon is a really good player who we wish we had, but it benefits us that we can align (Marascio) all over now.”
The group has made a point of uprooting the MAC rushing leaders throughout the course of the season. Of the top 10 rushers in the MAC this year, the Lycoming defense has faced seven already and held all seven below their season average.
In two of the last three weeks, the Warriors have faced the league’s leading rusher. Last week, Lebanon Valley’s Ben Guiles ran for minus-2 yards on nine carries, which is 95 yards under his season average. Three weeks ago, Zach Tivald of Wilkes gained just 31 yards against the Warriors when he was the league top rusher.
In total, those seven ball carriers gained just 129 yards. And once again this week the Warriors face the MAC’s leading rusher in Delaware Valley’s Kyle Schuberth who is averaging 103 rushing yards per game.
“Coach Wise says every week there’s going to be a challenge. And it sounds like a broken record, but he is the top rusher in the conference and he’s good,” Oropollo said. “But it’s just another challenge and we’re going to have to step it up.”
There hasn’t been a challenge yet that this group hasn’t been able to handle. In fact, the fun of the season has been watching this group try its best to frustrate its opponent.
This group is special. They’ve caused a lot of coaches this year to mimic Sheptock: chin to the chest, eyes closed, muttering under their breath. What else is there to do when you’re pounding your head against a brick wall?
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This was the rough draft of today's End Zone Extra cover. Photographer Mark Nance and graphic artist Tim Wertz made my idea come to life.