Mavs' defense ready for challenge presented by CSU-Pueblo's offense
Antonio Clark let the cat out of the bag.
“This game has been circled,” the Colorado Mesa senior cornerback said. “We can act like we haven’t been thinking about it, but we were.”
There’s not a bigger game in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference this season — Colorado Mesa at CSU-Pueblo, the only two nationally ranked teams in the conference.
“We know Pueblo’s beat us before and we’ve been beat bad by Pueblo,” said the Mavs’ other starting cornerback, senior George Manning. “We know this is our time to step up and change the table. All summer I was thinking ‘Pueblo, Pueblo, Pueblo.’ Even though you take one game at a time, you know certain games are big ones.
“We’re ready for whatever comes.”
Whatever comes should be a packed stadium at the ThunderBowl in Pueblo, which seats 6,500, but has stuffed nearly 10,000 in a few times since CSU-Pueblo resurrected its football program in 2008.
The Mavericks won the first two meetings, but the T-Wolves have owned Mesa, and pretty much every team in the RMAC, since then, winning six in a row until last season’s 20-19 thriller at Stocker Stadium.
Pueblo presents the Mavericks’ biggest challenge of the season so far, a team that’s withstood plenty of injuries and an upset loss to West Texas A&M to remain in the conference and playoff race.
It’s a team that loves to run the football, averaging 239 rushing yards a game, but will also test CMU’s secondary, throwing for 213 yards a game.
Mesa’s defense is coming off one of its best performances of the season against Fort Lewis. The Mavs are eighth in the conference in total defense, allowing 441.2 yards per game, and are last in pass defense, surrendering 306 yards a game in the air.
However, when it comes to giving up points, the Mavs are tied for third with Colorado Mines, 20.8 per game.
All but three of Western State’s 23 points came against the second- and third-team defense, Chadron State scored only 10 points despite being on the field for 90 plays, and after surviving the shootout against Colorado School of Mines, the first-team defense didn’t allow a point against Fort Lewis last week.
“Our defense really needed a dominating performance before this game,” Clark said. “I felt like that’s what we got. As the 1 defense, we got the shutout, and we needed that. Fort Lewis isn’t the same as Pueblo, but they have the same philosophy. They want to pound the ball, so it was a good test to prepare for this game.”
Despite losing starting running back Bernard McDondle to injury in the opener, the ThunderWolves have plenty of horses in the backfield. Marche Dennard averages 11.3 yards a carry and 85 yards a game, and Austin Micci runs for 80.8 yards a game, 5.4 yards a carry.
Teams that pound the ball down after down after down set themselves up for big plays in the passing game. The Mavs’ corners know they can’t cheat up or risk getting burned deep.
Quarterback Rex Dausin started the season No. 3 on the depth chart, but is now starting after AJ Thompson and Brandon Edwards were both injured. He threw for 169 yards last week against New Mexico Highlands, a game in which the T-Wolves didn’t have to throw much — they ran for 405 yards.
He does have big-play threats, though, mainly Osha Washington, and the defensive backs have to be prepared to help on the run while still respecting the passing game. There are plenty of times the cornerbacks are on an island, but that’s what they love about the position.
“It’s just swagger and confidence,” said Manning, who has 10 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown against Chadron State. “Sometimes we know we only have ourselves, and we believe in ourselves heavily. That’s what playing cornerback is, having confidence in yourself. We all know we’re out there for a reason and I have faith in every corner or (defensive back) that goes out there. We practice hard, so I know when the time comes, we’re ready.”
Clark has 17 tackles and has broken up a team-high five passes — the defense has broken up two dozen passes and has three interceptions.
Mesa’s defense is set up to prevent big plays, allowing bubble screens and underneath routes, but limiting yards after catches.
“I like that you can be feisty,” Clark said about playing corner. “It’s just competing. I’m all about competition. I welcome the challenge going against really good receivers.”
Saturday’s game is circled, getting plenty of local and even national attention — it’s on ESPN3 — and there’s fan chatter on internet message boards.
Is it too hyped?
“I wouldn’t say we’re too excited,” Clark said. “I feel like it lined up perfect. We had those other games and we’re undefeated like we thought we would be, and we’re ready for it. I think we’re more focused than excited.
“We prepared for this. The moment’s not too big because of all the work we put in, spring ball, these past few weeks, fall camp. The grind prepares you for this, so it’s not too big of a moment at all.”