HAMMOND — The way Southeastern Louisiana senior linebacker Isiah Corbett sees it, stopping the run is a prerequisite toward the Lions’ ultimate goal of becoming the Southland Conference’s top defense.
Heading into the eighth week of the season, the Lions are well on their way to achieving such distinction.
Standing in the way, though, will be a stern challenge from Southland Conference’s top-rated offense in Stephen F. Austin (5-2, 3-1). The Lumberjacks host No. 8 Southeastern (6-2, 4-0) in a key game at 3 p.m. Saturday at Homer Bryce Stadium in Nacogdoches, Texas.
“We always want to have a good defense against the run, because if someone can run the ball on you, arguably you’re not going to be very good on defense,” Corbett said. “We try and stop the run and get the ball back for (quarterback) Bryan Bennett and the offense so they can put up some points and make the other team have to throw it.”
There was no better example of the two units working in concert than last week’s 41-24 victory over Central Arkansas that gave SLU sole possession of the conference lead.
Junior safety Micah Eugene’s forced fumble halted one drive and led to the Lions taking the lead for good on an eight-play, 89-yard drive late in the first quarter.
Junior cornerback Denzel Thompson squelched another series deep in SLU territory with the first of his two interceptions in the second quarter and added another early in the fourth on the Lions’ 10-yard line.
For the seventh time in eight games, SLU’s defense was stingy against the run, limiting an opponent to under 135 yards to further cement its status as the league’s best in that category with an average of 113.6 per outing.
With six returning starters on defense, coupled with four other players with extensive playing time, SLU has improved on its No. 4 ranking against the run from a year ago when it allowed 163.4 yards.
“All of the experienced guys know where we have to be,” said Corbett, also mentioning seniors Tyler Stoddard, Drew Misita, Kaleb Muse and junior Harlan Miller. “We’ve also helped out the younger guys and have gotten them in the right position to be a great defense.”
Corbett, the team’s third-leading tackler with 51 stops, also credited a significant portion of this year’s improvement against the run to SLU’s front three of defensive ends Jacob Newman (21 tackles) and A.J. Bowen (11 tackles) and nose tackles Tupou Aleamotua and Ashton Henderson.
“Those 300 pounds are staying low, kind of keeping the (offensive) linemen off of the linebackers so we can run free,” Corbett said. “They’re really producing for us.”
SLU, which allowed a season-high 224 yards in a 24-23 loss to Southeast Missouri, faces the task of slowing down the league’s top ground game and No. 1 running back in senior Gus Johnson for first-year coach Clint Conque, a Catholic High graduate.
SFA produces 510.9 yards per game with a league-best 224.9 coming from its ground attack led by Johnson, a powerfully built 5-foot-11, 224-pounder, who is No. 2 on the school’s career rushing list with 3,210 yards and 44 TDs.
“That will be a huge challenge for us,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said. “We’ve got to get more than one guy to the point of attack and get (Johnson) down. He makes a lot of his yards after contact. He’s one of the better backs in the conference.”
Before the start of the season, Johnson joined Bennett on the Walter Payton Award watch list and has more than lived up to the billing with an SLC-best 986 yards and 16 touchdowns on 116 carries.
Johnson ranks first nationally in scoring with 96 points and yards per carry (8.5). His 133 yards and three TDs in last week’s 59-27 win over Houston Baptist represented his fifth 100-plus-yard effort — highlighted by a season-high 252 yards and four TDs versus Incarnate Word.
“Our coaches preach all 11 of us getting to the ball,” Corbett said. “We’re going to run to the ball and gang tackle if he have to; get as many people to party and have some fun. We’re going to be prepared.”