In the FCS Huddle: Jacksonville more than an offense
By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Poughkeepsie, NY (Sports Network) - Amid all those points that Jacksonville University's football team racks up ... all those 300-yard passing games ... all those 100-yard rushing games ... it's easy to forget something about the Dolphins:
They have a defense, too.
The Dolphins unleashed the highest-scoring offense in the Football Championship Subdivision last year - with hopes of doing the same this season behind four-year starting quarterback Josh McGregor - but they are finding opponents, like Marist on Saturday, are playing them a bit harder.
Which means that on some days the defense has to forget about its status as the supporting cast and all of its many key injuries, to go lead a win, as it did in totaling five sacks and five turnovers in a 21-9 escape from Marist.
"People might sleep on our defense because they always hear about our offense," McGregor said, "but our defense basically won this game for us today."
The Dolphins' dream of becoming the first Pioneer Football League team to make the FCS playoffs ended when they opened the season with non-conference losses to The Citadel and Western Illinois. But, three wins later, they are back on track to challenge for their third league title in four seasons.
In stabilizing, Jacksonville (3-2, 2-0) has had to overcome numerous injuries, including the season-ending losses of linebackers A.J. Joiner and Layne McCombs and safety Jordan Dewhirts, who arguably would have been the team's three best defensive players.
The injuries have provided playing time for those originally down the depth chart, enough so that next year's team will be defensive-led and accustomed to winning 21-9 games instead of, say, last weekend's 57-21 destruction of Campbell, when the Dolphins offense gained a school-record 713 yards.
Joe Barnett epitomizes those fulfilling opportunities. He was supposed to be a fourth-string middle linebacker this season. Against Marist, he was in on four stops, including a sack, forced a fumble and recovered one.
Combine such unexpected defensive exploits with the standouts Jacksonville knew about - like senior defensive tackle Rolando Fines (two sacks) and its secondary, led by safety Leonard Smith (10 tackles, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery) - and the Dolphins aren't so one-sided after all.
"(People) put so much emphasis on our offense," Fines said, "and our defense is able to show up and say we're not just a backdrop to our offense. We go against one of the best offenses in D I-AA every single day, so it kind of makes us a better defense.
"We're able to blitz a lot because our offense is able to score so many points. We're able to do things other defenses would normally be more cautious on. We're able to play aggressive."
The overcast day in the 50s along the Hudson River took Jacksonville out of its element, but its lack of offensive rhythm had more to do with Marist (1-4, 0-2). Red Foxes defensive coordinator Scott Rumsey might have provided a game plan for future Jacksonville opponents, as his 3-3-5 base alignment didn't let McGregor throw deep.
The Dolphins didn't take advantage of enough underneath routes and McGregor finished 11-of-19 for 112 yards, which usually is about a quarter's work for the FCS' active career passing leader, who has thrown for 9,405 yards and 97 touchdowns.
Marist might have ended Jacksonville's PFL winning streak - which stands out 12 - if not for its many miscues. The Red Foxes have a minus-12 turnover ratio this season, and opponents have been turning short field positions into touchdowns.
In fact, Jacksonville twice recovered first-half fumbles inside the Marist 10- yard line and turned them into the first two of J.J. Laster's three touchdown runs, which boosted his otherwise pedestrian 44 yards on 18 carries
"We had them on the ropes, I thought, in the third quarter," said Marist coach Jim Parady, whose 20-year record with the Red Foxes fell to 100-100-1. He's been stuck on the century mark since an opening-day win over Sacred Heart.
"I think that our athletes are here right now to be able to play with anybody on our schedule. It's now the execution part - eliminating the mistakes that we made, and some mental mistakes that we made also during the course of the game (that) came back to hurt us a little bit."
Laster's final touchdown capped a 15-play, 89-yard drive and gave Jacksonville breathing room at 21-9. The Dolphins converted a 4th-and-5 from the Marist 23 when McGregor bought time in his backfield until he found Tommie Rogers for a 19-yard pass to the Red Foxes' four. One play later, Laster ran over a defender while going around left end into the end zone with 11:07 left.
The game had become tight in the third quarter after Marist closed within 14-9 with an unusual safety -- its first in 11 years.
The Red Foxes were trying to tie up the game at 14 with a drive just outside the Jacksonville red zone, only to have senior quarterback Tommy Reilly loft a dangerous pass into coverage. The ball was batted around by players on both teams before Dolphins safety Andy Sainvil reeled it in just in front his team's end zone. He stepped back into the end zone and didn't get out before Marist wide receiver Kevin Fitzpatrick tackled him for the two points with 7:54 left.
JU head coach Kerwin Bell hammered away on officials that momentum had carried Sainvil into the end zone, but to no avail.
Still Jacksonville never trailed in the game. Marist closed within 14-7 by halftime after Bart Lenegham's 59-yard reception set up Ryan Dinnebeil's one- yard touchdown run with 2:06 left in the second quarter, but the Dolphins defense kept making plays to hold the Red Foxes to only 207 yards.
The win erased some of the sting of Jacksonville's loss two years ago in Poughkeepsie on a late-game Hail Mary and sends it home to play a showdown against Dayton, which tied for last year's league title with the Dolphins.
"Four out of five weeks, we've been on the road, and some long road trips," Bell said. "It will be good to be back home. We have to put together a really good (game plan). I'm starting to see a complete football team, which is what you always try to work on as a coach."
"It was a big victory for us," McGregor said. "It wasn't pretty, but, hey, winning championships aren't always easy."
10/01 18:04:19 ET