“I think they responded real well, everybody flying around to the ball,” safety Zyon Gilbert said. “That’s what the coaches like to see.”
FAU missed what coach Lane Kiffin hyperbolically called “a million tackles” in the Owls’ season-opening 63-14 loss to No. 7 Oklahoma on Saturday.
The Sooners rushed for 316 yards, led by Rodney Anderson’s 100 yards on only five carries. As a team, Oklahoma averaged 8.1 yards per carry.
“They are good backs, but we made them look like superstars,” linebacker Rashad Smith said.
FAU employed live tackling against both the scout team and first string during Monday’s and Tuesday’s practices. On Wednesday the Owls reverted to “thud” tackling, where defensive players wrapped up ball carriers but don’t take them to the ground.
“I think we practiced better on defense this week,” Kiffin said. “Heavy emphasis obviously on tackling for two reasons – because of the performance and also because of who we are playing.”
Tackling takes on a different level of importance in Saturday’s home opener when Air Force brings its triple option attack to Boca Raton.
That offensive scheme attempts to isolate the ball carrier against one defender. If that defender can’t make a clean tackle, big plays often result.
On Wednesday defensive players acknowledged that the extra emphasis on tackling earlier in the week should pay dividends on Saturday.
“I definitely think it helped,” defensive end Hunter Snyder said. “We’re all wrapping up. We’re swarming the ball. Coach always wants us to swarm. I think that’s going to help us a lot.”
To give the defense a better feel for what it’s like to defend Air Force quarterback Arion Worthman, who rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons’ season-opener at Stony Brook, the Owls are employing some of their reserve running backs and true freshman cornerback Teja Young, who played some quarterback in high school, as the scout team quarterbacks this week.
Even offensive players are noticing the increased energy on the defensive side of the ball.
“Our defense is hungry,” wide receiver Jovon Durante said. “I see a total big difference in our defense.”
As embarrassed as Kiffin was with last week’s defensive effort – the Owls surrendered 650 yards of total offense – he understands that teams most often take their biggest leaps forward between the first and second week of the season.
FAU faced a similar offensive attack last year in a 42-19 season-opening loss to Navy. The Owls surrendered 416 rushing yards to the Midshipmen that night. Tackling proved problematic for FAU that night, too.
“Hopefully when these things happen they become a positive and guys realize that they’ve got to do a better job of tackling in practice and thudding, and emphasis and focus on it,” Kiffin said.