Mesa corrects defensive issues against Skyhawks

Colorado Mesa linebacker Brad Gillis, 58, dives onto the football after a Fort Lewis fumble Saturday during the first half of the Mavs’ 40-14 victory at Stocker Stadium. Mesa’s defense had no penalties and forced some three-and-outs, which was a point of emphasis before the Skyhawks came to town.

Dustin Rivas, 20, and others on Colorado Mesa’s defense celebrate after recovering a fumble by Fort Lewis on Saturday during the first quarter the Mavs’ 40-14 victory at Stocker Stadium.

Despite its spotless record, the Colorado Mesa University football team was looking to address major issues against Fort Lewis.

In the two games since its season-opening win over Western State, the Mavericks’ defense hadn’t forced a three-and-out. Against Chadron State and Colorado Mines, the defense was on the field for more than 90 plays in each game.

Mesa also led the RMAC in penalties, averaging 105 yards in flags per game, many in the form of personal fouls and mistakes on special teams.

The Mavs quickly addressed both issues in a 40-14 victory over Fort Lewis at Stocker Stadium.

The Skyhawks, with a possession-heavy, run-focused offense, still out-possessed the Mavericks by a large margin, especially in the first half. But despite more than doubling Mesa’s total possession time before the break, Fort Lewis ran only 37 first-half plays.

CMU coach Russ Martin said avoiding prolonged drives was a focus against the Skyhawks. The Mavericks opened a 40-0 lead, and it was the second-team defense that surrendered two late touchdowns.

“(Fort Lewis) still made some great plays on some third downs, but we were able to get off the field,” Martin said. “We didn’t allow the real long drives. Even in the first half, when they had a couple of their longer drives, we knew if we could keep them from making a big play, we felt we could stop them. And we did. We kept them from scoring touchdowns and I was very pleased with that.”

The Mavericks got a three-and-out early in the second quarter, added two more later in the game, and forced two turnovers. Fort Lewis ran 76 plays and had 343 yards of total offense.

Better yet, the Mavericks’ defense wasn’t penalized. Mesa was flagged only three times — one offensive holding penalty, an illegal block on special teams and an offsides penalty when a receiver lined up in the neutral zone.

Part of the adjustment was mandated by coaches. Martin said some players were held out against Fort Lewis to send a message — knock it off with the penalties.

“Honestly, I love their enthusiasm, but you also have to have guided enthusiasm and we’ve had some stupid penalties up to this point. Tonight, much more pleased with how it went.”

Brad Gillis, who led the Mavericks with nine tackles, one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss, said the penalties were also policed by players. It was something discussed before the game and will continue being a focus moving forward.

“That’s probably our main focus right now — not beating ourselves,” Gillis said. “That’s really the only thing you can focus on at the end of the day, just what we can control. I feel like we have playmakers. We have playmakers on offense and playmakers on defense and we can’t risk taking those big plays away with penalties.”

With CSU-Pueblo on the schedule next week, the Mavericks’ penalty issues will be squarely in focus in a heated rivalry atmosphere. The Mavericks beat the ThunderWolves 20-19 last season, making a goal-line stand to seal the victory. But in that game, both teams combined for 19 penalties for 175 yards.

Senior safety Dustin Rivas said the defense must remain focused despite the intense atmosphere.

“We want to be real disciplined because when you really look at our games, we got so much talent, but sometimes those extra penalties are killing drives and slowing our momentum down,” Rivas said. “We just want to focus on that. We feel if we can stay away from those big penalties, we can keep moving and keep momentum.
“It’s going to be a great game next week. I’m glad we took care of business tonight. We’re going to celebrate this win and then, come Monday, it’s time to go beat Pueblo.”


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