CHARLESTON — When asked for an assessment of Eastern Illinois’ defense Saturday, Dytarious Johnson offered as blunt an answer as possible. He was asked to pinpoint the difference between this season’s defense and last, to identify what helped EIU hold Illinois State’s offense with the same cast of characters to 27 fewer points and 297 fewer yards than the last time they squared off.
“We run to the ball. Last year, we just kind of gave up when we started losing,” Johnson said. “This year, we have a lot of confidence about ourselves. We grew really close as a team and especially as a defense.”
Whatever it is — cohesion, discipline, coaching, experience — there’s an obvious difference on the field. And Johnson, the team’s leader in tackles for loss last year, is perhaps the best example of it. He zoomed off the edge all day, notching three tackles for loss and one sack.
“He’s one of the guys we’re most proud of in terms of gains he has made,” EIU head coach Adam Cushing said. “He made a bunch of plays last year too, but he has that capability and it has been really fun to see him do all the little details right and trust himself.”
Johnson is among the leaders of a unit that entered this year with zero outside fanfare or expectations, one that was maligned all of last season as the FCS’ No. 118 defense in yards per game. In two 2019 games against FCS opponents, though, there’s no opponent averaging a first down every offensive play or anyone racking up yardage totals that aren’t too far off from being confused with Boeing airplane models. EIU is allowing 22.5 points, 317.5 yards and 5.2 yards per play against FCS teams — nothing elite, but certainly not resembling the sieve-like unit from a year ago.
“They were battling and getting themselves off the field,” Cushing said. “There were a couple of drives, but that’s the nature of football.”
As for why they’ve shoved last season’s woes behind them so quickly, two themes stand out: EIU’s best defensive players are playing at the level expected of them, and the number of missed assignments and blown coverages has plummeted. Those plagued EIU against Indiana, but Saturday’s effort went a long way toward proving those miscues were indeed more a product of the game and opponent and not something that portended a lack of discipline.
Defensive coordinator Chris Bowers was particularly impressed with the low number of missed tackles in the opener, when teams often tackle poorly because of the small number of live tackling reps in fall camp. The same sturdy tackling showed up Saturday, save for about two plays.
Johnson, linebacker Joe Caputo and nose tackle Terrell Greer were expected to be defensive leaders and producers. Saturday, they combined for 20 tackles, five for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Each brings a different element: Johnson’s burst off the edge, Caputo’s instincts and Greer’s physicality at the point of attack. Cushing called Greer “consistently our best football player.” Johnson echoed.
“He’s always an A-plus with me,” Johnson said. “On game day he’s always getting penetration. He’s our anchor.”
All of the discussion of defensive improvement can only go so far. There is, at this point, still a “but” associated with it all.
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Both of those FCS games ended in losses: Chattanooga defeated EIU 24-10, and Illinois State won 21-3.
It’s hard for any team to win games when its offense has scored 13 points through three contests, but nonetheless, there are reminders of the work still to do.
Chattanooga hit the Panthers with explosive plays through the air, and Illinois State’s James Robinson did it on the ground. Robinson ran for 146 yards on 23 carries, including a 52-yard scamper where he broke multiple tackles. Big plays have been the one bugaboo. Some come from missed assignments. Others are star players winning reps.
Overall, EIU’s defense still has the feel of a bend-but-don’t-break unit. Discipline removes some of the tendency to break, but it’s bending because it lacks big plays of its own. EIU has not forced a turnover since that Chattanooga game, and went until the second quarter against Illinois State without a sack this season. The Panthers have intercepted two passes, and one of them was a tipped pass when a Chattanooga receiver dropped what should have been a completion for a first down. Those drive-stopping, game-changing plays turn a defense from a disciplined, sound unit into an explosive, dominant one.
“We have to start creating turnovers, getting the ball back in good position for our offense,” Cushing said.
Getting there is the next step to take, and maybe one that will take more time. But consider the path toward it paved smoother than it has been in a while.
“Our confidence is still here,” Johnson said.