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Bulldogs persevere through low-scoring defensive struggle

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STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON

After it allowed 45 points and 518 total yards last week, the Drake defense looked like a different unit during Saturday night’s 13-7 overtime win over Truman State.

The Bulldogs held TSU to a mere 290 total yards and only seven points, a performance much more reminiscent of the top Pioneer Football League defense in 2013.

“We just had a great week of preparation. It was a wake-up call last week, honestly, and so we came ready to work all this week, and it showed,” said linebacker John Hugunin. “Seven points through four quarters is pretty awesome.”

Hugunin led the team with 15 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss. He was one of five Drake defenders to notch five or more stops on the night.

Head coach Rick Fox had nothing but praise for his team.

“They just played fantastic all the way through,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

One of the chief concerns for the defense was stopping Truman running back Garrett White, who rushed for 995 yards last season. Drake bottled him up, only allowing him to run for 88 yards,  averaging 3.7 yards per carry.

For the defense, the key to defending White was simple.

“Just tackle well,” Hugunin said. “That’s the key to playing any good running back, is the first time you hit him, bring him down.”

Drake also shut down Truman’s air attack, permitting Devonte Black to throw for a pedestrian 172 yards. However, he was elusive in the pocket and carrying the ball, proving hard to bring down.

“We didn’t have any film on him, actually, so we did not know what to expect, but he was a heck of an athlete,” Hugunin said. “He gave us some problems, but the team effort, that’ll shut down one guy any day of the week.”

The TSU touchdown with four seconds left in the first quarter would be all Drake allowed. In all, Truman State was forced to punt nine times to go along with a missed 42-yard field goal. The defense also managed to corral Black and record three sacks.

While the defense was firing on all cylinders, the Drake offense couldn’t get anything going against the TSU defense.

After quarterback Andy Rice threw a touchdown pass to tight end Eric Saubert with 7:37 left in the first quarter, Drake struggled to move the ball into scoring range.

Over the next 45-plus minutes, Drake went three-and-out five times, allowed six sacks and lost one fumble. Even when the offense managed to gain some yardage, like T.J. James’ 43-yard dash in the third quarter, drives would stall and the ball would go back to TSU. In fact, Cam Bohnert matched his Truman counterpart, also punting nine times.

Even while struggling, the offense didn’t get overly frustrated.

“If people start to get frustrated, then you start fighting yourself, and now you’re fighting two opponents,” Fox said. “They never got that way. They hung in there.”

The perseverance paid off when Fox’s offense put together a 59-yard drive at the end of regulation, putting kicker Ben Tesson in a position to win the game with a 37-yard field goal. He missed, but Drake had figured it out.

After the defense stopped Truman yet again in overtime, Drake was able to capitalize. Conley Wilkins ran it in from two yards out, giving Drake its first win of the year.

“The defense just gave us such energy. We were feeding off of them. To let up seven points against a team like this, hat’s off to them.

“They played unbelievably tonight, and that energy just kept us alive,” Saubert said. “That’s great to have.”

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