S.C. State defense

Jason Baxter, 26, and Darius Leonard, 10, make a tackle on North Carolina A&T running back Marquell Cartwright on Sept. 30 in Orangeburg. South Carolina State is ranked first in the MEAC in total defense (257 yards per game), second in scoring defense (16.3 points per game), and third in interceptions with seven, including two returned for touchdowns.

LARRY HARDY/T&D

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bethune-Cookman head coach Terry Sims didn’t hesitate when asked about South Carolina State’s identity.

“Physical, they’re a very physical football team,” he said during a Wednesday press conference. “That’s been their identity the 10-12 years I’ve been in this league. They’re a physical football team, and on offense, defense and special teams, that’s what they hang their hat on.”

Perhaps this year more than ever, that unit has been particularly dominant for the Bulldogs.

South Carolina State is ranked first in the MEAC in total defense (257 yards per game), second in scoring defense (16.3 points per game), and third in interceptions with seven, including two returned for touchdowns. In their two wins, the Bulldog defense has allowed a total of just 14 points. That unit has allowed no more than 26 points in any of the three losses. With the 26 coming from defending conference champion North Carolina Central (4-1, 3-0).

“It’s a challenge, man,” said B-CU running back Jamaruz Thompkins, who’s coming off a 126-yard game against Savannah State. “You have to be ready to step up to the plate and handle business. It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but we have to approach this as another game, embrace the process, and work hard throughout the week.”

Thompkins and fellow running backs Michael Jones and Tupac Isme have the Wildcats ranked third in the conference with over 160 rushing yards per game, but that trio will have their work cut out for them on Saturday. The Bulldogs, led by preseason defensive player of the year Darius Leonard, feature the second-ranked run defense in the conference, allowing just 95.4 yards per game.

Leonard, a redshirt senior linebacker, already has more than 60 tackles, five quarterback hits, two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble in just five games.

“Darius is a guy that plays the game the right way, and he’s been that guy since he got there,” Sims said. “When you have a talented individual that plays the game hard and plays it the right way, they have no choice but to be successful. You don’t see this guy take plays off.”

While the B-CU offense against the SCSU defense will be the matchup to watch Saturday, the B-CU defense could very well be the unit that defines the game. The Wildcats rank eighth in total defense, but are the second best team against the pass, giving up just 144 yards per game in the air.

The Wildcats also have the advantage up front, where they have 11 sacks in just five games. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, gave up two sacks last week against Morgan State, and have yielded seven on the season.

“Our offensive line had its moments (last week), but we also had 17 minus-yards plays, too,” SCSU head coach Oliver Pough said. “I don’t have that much good to say about that group right now. I just got through practicing with them this morning, and they don’t like me very much right now, but the feeling is mutual. Bethune’s defense is good as usual. If we go down there and play the way we did last week, those guys will slobberknock us. It’ll be ugly.”

Of course, last season it was the Bulldogs who “slobberknocked” the Wildcats around, defeating B-CU 28-7 in the season finale. Sims said finishing the game — the Wildcats were outscored 21-0 down the stretch last year — will be the difference on Saturday.

“We have to keep our energy up,” he added. “We have to continue to be who we are. Last year, coming off the storm and an emotional game like the Florida Classic, and then playing that next week, it just took a lot out of us as a team. We didn’t go in with enough juice and they took advantage of it.”

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