Defensive stops will be the key for Mesa vs. Mines
Two high-powered offenses, run by senior quarterbacks.
Justin Dvorak is putting up video-game numbers for Colorado School of Mines.
Sean Rubalcaba is operating the Colorado Mesa system like it was tailor-made for him.
Offensive lines that refuse to let defenses through — neither QB has been sacked in the first two games.
And offensive weapons? Four of the top six wide receivers in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and a pair of running backs who can break loose at any time will all be showcased Saturday in Golden when No. 23 Colorado Mesa (2-0, 2-0 RMAC) plays No. 10 Colorado Mines (2-0, 2-0).
So with all that firepower, what will determine one of only two top-25 games in Division II this week?
“The defenses know you’re going to give up some yards in a game like this,” CMU coach Russ Martin said. “What you want to be able to do as much as anything else is prevent the one big play and make the other team have to drive the ball and basically give your defense a chance for the offense to beat themselves or the offense to make a mistake. Our guys have done that so far defensively and I think it’s going to be an outstanding game.”
Mesa’s defense got the attention of Colorado Mines coach Brandon Gregg in Week 1.
“Mesa definitely got our attention against Western,” he said. “Western is a really good team, especially offensively, their (passing) game is very sophisticated and they have a great quarterback. Mesa hit him and pressured him and did a nice job covering; guys weren’t running open. That got my attention and definitely our offensive coaches’ and players’ attention.
“We’ve got to protect Justin and give him time to throw the ball down the field and mix in the run game as we go. We’ve gotta play at a high level. To keep (Dvorak) upright is huge.”
Even if the Mavericks get pressure on Dvorak, Martin is quick to point out he’s still dangerous. Plus, he’s got Sam Seeton, who rushed for 1,150 yards last season and has 107 yards on 31 carries so far this season.
“If you let him stand back there, he will pick you apart. The young man can throw the football, he can throw it tremendously well,” Martin said. “He can throw it to spots, he can throw the back-shoulder fade, the deep ball, the crossers, there isn’t a ball he can’t throw well.
“We have to continue to get pressure on him, and that’s changing up with our rushes, whether that’s 3-man, 4-man or even 5-man rush, make sure even if we’re not getting to him, we’re getting pressure on him. Maybe it’s getting some quarterback hits, flush him out of the pocket, maybe it’s disrupting his vision, his timing throwing the ball downfield.”
Like Dvorak, Rubalcaba can make decisions on the run, whether that’s throwing on a roll-out or keeping the ball himself. The CMU coaches want him to run less this season, and now that he understands the system and his playmakers, he’s comfortable stepping up in the pocket and letting plays develop before he takes off.
“I think we’ve been able to accomplish that and yet he is also a dynamic runner,” Martin said. “Kind of what we’ve been doing is mixing a lot of run-pass situations, trying to be balanced. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be equal in yards; we want to be equally efficient. If someone is going to give us the run game, we’re going to run the ball and we’re going to pound the ball very well. If they’re going to defend the run, we can attack the perimeter. We think we have some major playmakers in our wide receivers, our tight ends, even our running backs out of the backfield.”
Mines is third in the RMAC in total defense, but No. 1 in rushing defense, allowing only 83 yards a game, and that’s after playing CSU-Pueblo in the season opener. With a veteran offense able to put up points to the tune of 55.5 points a game, the Orediggers understand the importance of defense.
“Whichever defense wins will probably win the game,” said Brandon, in his second year at Mines. “We’ve challenged our kids since last year to step up. We’ve got to build a championship defense.”
The Mavs’ Blake Nelson leads the conference with four total sacks, with the Orediggers’ Chris Brockman second with two. Dustin Rivas’ three interceptions leads the RMAC, and the Mavericks have four of the top 20 tacklers in the league — Marcus Cross and Nelson with 15, Rivas and Alec Barcellos 14.
The Mavericks have given up some yardage, and allowed two big plays last week against Chadron State. Martin isn’t concerned with the yardage, saying CMU is improving in all phases defensively. He’s intent on winning the turnover battle and the game.
“At the start of the season we talked to the players that still the No. 1 factor in winning or losing football games is the turnover battle,” Martin said. “If we don’t turn the ball over we certainly can’t lose the turnover battle, you stay equal at worst.”
One number that Brandon throws out the window is time of possession. The Orediggers have seven scoring drives that haven’t taken one full minute off the clock this season. The ‘Diggers have had the ball for six fewer minutes than their opponents, yet have outscored them 111-35.
“If you’re holding the ball and can’t score any points, what good does that do?” Brandon said. “It’s about scoring. We can drive the ball. We had some nice drives against Pueblo, 10, 12 plays, and we had some quick strikes.”
Martin, for one, isn’t worried if Saturday turns into a high-scoring game.
“I’m going to be honest with you, I think our offense can keep up with anybody,” he said. “I think our defense can keep up and compete. I think you’re going to see a great football game.
“We have great confidence in our players, they believe in what they’re doing and I think this football team is capable of hanging with anybody, high-scoring, low-scoring, any situation.”