For Ashland University's football team's defense, the first four games of the 2017 season were not easy ones for which to prepare.
It started with a road game at Indiana, Pa., one of the top NCAA Division II offenses in 2016. In order, that was followed by a spread passing attack in Ohio Dominican, Northwood's "Woodbone" option offense and a Week 4 home game vs. one of this season's best offenses in D-II, Ferris State.
The result? A 3-1 record and a defense which is in the top 20 in the nation in scoring defense. This despite having to replace four starters and other key members from a 2016 unit which was tops in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense.
"I felt coming into the year that while we lost some absolutely great football players," said Ashland defensive coordinator Tim Rose, "we had a lot of youth, but that youth had a lot of enthusiasm and speed. And I thought we had a chance to have a lot more depth than we did a year ago, and that's proven to be true.
"Every game is a season by itself. You've got to have to enough in your defensive package that you can effectively try to defend all those things. One game doesn't dictate how you're going to play."
The Eagles have used that depth more and more as the season has progressed, and the numbers show how there hasn't been a drop-off when the first team is replaced by the second team, and all 22 players on the depth chart are playing regular snaps:
- The team's 24 tackles for loss have been recorded by 16 players.
- Ashland's nine sacks are spread out among seven players.
- Seven Eagles have at least 15 total tackles, and 15 have at least 10.
"You need to spell your interior linemen for sure," Rose said. "We have four linebackers playing who are very close in ability and speed and intelligence. We've got a couple strong safeties playing well. The idea is, if you deserve to play because of your skills, you're going to play, unless you're behind an all-league player."
Said junior defensive end James Prater Jr., the GLIAC Week 4 Defensive Player of the Week, "Coach Rose is a great coach. He's an amazing coach. We follow him, and we did lose some great players last year, but we're a defense who loves turning doubters into believers.
"Coach Rose is going to lead us, and we're going to do what we need to do to win."
On Saturday (Sept. 23) night vs. then-No. 2-ranked Ferris State at Jack Miller Stadium/Martinelli Field, Ashland held a team which had been averaging 645 total yards and 366 rushing yards per game to just 228 and 127 yards, respectively.
In the second half alone, as the Eagles were playing with a lead, Ashland's "D" allowed just 74 yards and no points on 29 plays over seven drives. Ferris State punted four times, had a turnover on downs, threw an interception and had the ball when the game ended.
"We're on a high," said senior linebacker Tre'Vontae Jackson. "We did a lot this weekend, (but) we have to keep going. The defense, we're going to keep going. We're on a high, on the coattails of coach Rose.
"Twenty-two definitely beats 11, so I feel like our 22 against any 11, we're ready."
Rose coordinates the defense and coaches the linebackers, and the defensive staff includes former Eagles Dirk Dickerhoof (ends/studs) and Taylor Housewright (defensive backs), as well as longtime assistant John Saccomen (interior defensive line) and graduate assistant Kyohei Kosaka.
"We just went in with a game plan," Rose said of the game against the Bulldogs. "Taylor does a great job in the secondary for a guy who was an offensive guy for his whole life and a great quarterback. He's doing a great job in the secondary. Dirk is such a thorough, smart coach at the end spot, doing a great job, and John does a great job with the defensive linemen. He's technique-conscious, which is what you need in there. And K works awfully hard and is doing a great job.
"It's a pretty good blend of youth and age, and experience and non-experience."