Torero football looks to continue winning ways
By Davis Jones
Many football teams abide by the mantra that a strong defense results in a strong offense. After two dominating USD wins against Pioneer League opponents, it might be tough to say which is stronger.
With its 45-13 win against the Mercer University Bears last weekend, the Toreros now have won eight straight PFL games. Their 2-0 record this season has played center stage to impressive offensive performances, particularly by senior quarterback Mason Mills, with both games also featuring a swarming USD defense that has allowed only one touchdown.
Mills has turned in two near-perfect passing games while manning the team’s offense. His 23-27 completion rate against Mercer followed an 18-20 showing against the Stetson Hatters on Sept. 28 in a 59-0 blowout win. Mills’s 682 cumulative passing yards puts him at a five-game season average of 306.8 yards per game, a mark which leads the PFL by nearly 30 yards. Mills also leads the league in passing efficiency (174.6) and in total offense (291.0 Yds/G).
“It’s just been a good season overall,” Mills said. “It’s a lot of offseason work, just being in the film room every day, trying to understand what teams do before they do it. I mean, they were solid games, but it starts up front with our offensive line and with our receivers and running backs. It really was a team effort. We’re not looking too far into those past few teams because [Stetson and Mercer] had never played anyone like us yet, so it really starts to get going next week.”
His offensive numbers have not only topped the conference, but in a few ways have even topped the program. Mills passed for five yards to senior receiver Sam Hoekstra in the first half against Mercer and subsequently became the USD all-time leader in career completions with 744. Graduated quarterback Josh Johnson (2004-2007), now playing for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, held the previous record with 724. The Stetson game featured another milestone, with Mills taking the program all-time lead in career passing attempts with 1,078. The previous high also belonged to Johnson (1,065).
“It’s been a lot of hard work, and I’d like to think it validates some of the things I’ve been doing,” Mills said. “But once again, it’s a team effort. It starts up front with the offensive line, and you have to have receivers who can catch the ball. They’re doing a great job. It’s nice to have all of these things happen and to be in the same category as Josh [Johnson]. Completions and attempts are nice, but we’re trying to get those yards and touchdowns. That’s what we’re still chasing after.”
Equally as impressive as the team’s aerial offense has been its collective defense. Four different players finished with four tackles against Stetson while limiting the Hatters to just 10 total rushing yards. Mercer, who ranks second in the PFL in scoring offense and in rushing offense, managed to score just two field goals after connecting for a touchdown in the first period. In USD’s last eight quarters of play, six of them have resulted in a shutout. Defensive coordinator Steve Irvin believes the team’s early struggles contributed to its recent success.
“I think the first couple of losses were wake-up calls for the guys,” Irvin said. “We started to hone in and realize that we weren’t going to just show up and win ball games. And from that point on, starting on the practice field, guys really started to show up.”
USD looks to confirm its undefeated stance in the Pioneer League as it prepares for the Marist College Red Foxes (Poughkeepsie, NY) on Oct. 12 for Homecoming/Parent weekend. The Red Foxes, like Mercer, sit atop the upper rank of team defenses in the conference, as they currently place third in three different statistical categories: total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense. Senior Terrence Fede, a 6’5”, 270 lbs defensive lineman from Nyack, NY, is tied for the PFL lead in sacks per game and is third in recorded tackles for losses. The league recently named him Defensive Player of the Week after his team’s 37-0 shutout against the Valparaiso Crusaders, during which he led the Red Foxes with eight tackles, two sacks and a fumble.
“He’s a guy we’ve considered heavily all week as we’ve organized the game plan,” offensive line coach Cory White said. “You have to do whatever you can to contain him.”
When asked about Mills’s role in the team’s assignment, White knows its quarterback is ready for the challenge.
“Mason does a great job of getting us into the plays we need to get into and of recognizing bad situations. Plus, I feel like we’ve got a really good matchup between [Fede] and both of our tackles,” White said.
“Our offensive line is going to take it like it was any other guy,” Mills added. “We have guys who have gone up against All-Americans at Cal Poly and All-Americans at Harvard. It really doesn’t matter to them. We’re not going to treat anything differently. We’ve gone up against him for three years, so it’s not like he’s someone we haven’t seen before or anything. He’s a great player, and we’re not going to discount him, but we also aren’t going to change the game plan just because of one guy. We’ll chip him with our running backs, but nothing any different.”