Defense Building On UWF Foundation For Saturday’s Playoff Game

November 29, 2019

Maybe the most defining moment in the University of West Florida football season occurred in the fourth game, just when an emotional edge had switched to the opposite sideline.

Mississippi College had used a 13-play, 89-yard drive in the final 3:39 to forge a 21-21 tie on a running play as time expired. UWF was now facing its first overtime game in team history.

Head coach Pete Shinnick never hesitated. He sent the Argos defense back on the field.

“I looked at them and said, ‘Hey we’re going to stick our defense back out there.’ That’s how much I believed in them,” Shinnick said.

Faith was rewarded. The Argos got a quarterback sack and stop. No points. The Argos took their possession and won the game 27-21.

Since then? Six wins in seven games, leading into Saturday’s NCAA Division II Super Region Two semifinal game at 1 p.m. (EST) in a road rematch at No. 1 ranked, unbeaten Valdosta State.

“I think that was a signature stop for us,” said UWF defensive coordinator Darian Dulin, the architect behind a defense which has progressed with the infancy of the program. “That last drive our guys were really upset about giving up that score.

“From that moment on, they kinda took the attitude that, hey, we can control our destiny from here on what this going to look like. And we’re going to play with a different mindset. From that point on they have really been playing good football.”

Just as the Argos improbable and magical 2017 run to the D-2 national title game was buoyed by defensive prowess, this season includes similarities.

Even with the lone aberration in the 48-37 shootout win against West Alabama – a game two weeks ago when the teams’ offenses combined for 1,091 yards – UWF’s defensive numbers stand among national leaders in several categories.

UWF is eighth nationally in scoring defense, yielding 15.3 points per-game. The Argos are tied for 10thin red-zone defense, giving up just 11 touchdowns in opponents’ 31 trips inside the 20. They are 16thin passing efficiency defense, which includes 10 interceptions.

“You gotta have a great defense to compete,” Shinnick said. “And I have felt great about our defense. It’s been that way all season.”

The Argos (9-2), fresh off a 38-17 playoff win at Wingate where they led 31-3 in the fourth quarter, face a repeat challenge against Valdosta State (10-0), which ranks No. 4 nationally in total offense, averaging 523.2 yards-per game.

In the first meeting Nov. 9, the Blazers amassed 526 yards against UWF, but were held to just two touchdowns through three quarters in their eventual 26-21 victory. After scoring touchdowns in two of their first three possessions, UWF later forced field goals with stops at their own 2 and 3, which changed the entire game for the second half.

“It kept us in the game,” Shinnick said. “So that was huge. But we also kept (UWF defense) on the field a long time. We’ve got to get them off on some third downs, we’ve got to get them off, earlier.”

Led by junior quarterback Rogan Wells, who has passed for 2,315 yards and 17 touchdowns, while rushing for 680 yards and six scores, the Blazers have one of the most dynamic, dual-threat, quarterbacks in Division II.

He has triggered a offense which carried the Blazers to a 14-0 record in 2018 and the D-2 national title.

“It’s probably going to go down as one of the better offenses in the history of Division II, two years in a row averaging over 500 yards a game,” Shinnick said. “That’s tough to do at any level, at any place. (Wells) is going to go down as an All-American, a Harlon Hill finalist (the D-2 version of Heisman Trophy).

“I think this is a unique collection of players that Valdosta has. What they have done offensively to average the yardage they have over the last 25 games… not many people can do that.”
UWF, however, rallied from a 20-0 deficit at halftime of the previous game to have a chance to take a lead in the fourth quarter.

The Argos’ defense has been a reflection of its coach, third-year defensive coordinator Darian Dulin, whose impact has helped UWF make rapid progression with a roster that has gone through natural.

Defensive back Trent Archie, one of the charter members from UWF’s inaugural season, has joined with linebacker Andre Duncombe to help bridge the transition. Archie has embraced Dulin’s defensive philosophy and his constant intensity on the sideline.

“If you have a defensive coordinator that is not fired up, are you really going to get fired up on the field?” said Archie, who was the team’s third leading tackler in 2017 and now second-leading tackler in 2019. “I think coach Dulin really adds to that. Once we see him get hyped, we get hyped and we feed off that. I think that leads to success.

“He’s been a very aggressive coach. He likes to bring pressure. Likes to get in your face as a defense. We like that.”

Archie can remember how all of this started, back when UWF was just trying to have introductory practices on converted intramural fields with a post-practice therapy area at the Skeeter Carson Tennis Center.

From that basic start, the program four years later is back in the playoff field in Division II.

“We were just some young’uns out there, just trying to play, having a dream,” Archie said. “Now the dream has come true.

“Coach Shinnick had a big impact on it. When he came in, he made us believe in his culture and everything with it, along with having integrity.”

Both Shinnick and Dulin had a sense in the summer this team’s defensive group could be special, provided injuries were at a minimum and newcomers could make smooth transitions.

“I think you always hope, and you pray, that’s what you’re going to have when you put it together,” Dulin said. “We felt like we did a good job recruiting. We got some guys we felt fit our needs and some guys we had coming back who we knew could be great.

“But you always worry about how this is all going to jell together. Are these guys going to pick up our system and all that stuff? I think our guys have done a great job of getting better every day and playing hard.”

Shinnick, who had not coached with Dulin prior to hiring him, has seen Dulin’s influence for three seasons.

“He’s been a great ambassador for UWF and what we believe in and what we are trying to do,” Shinnick said. “Great energy. Great excitement. He takes every rep serious and our guys know that and they want to go out and play well for him.

It’s led to UWF preparing for another playoff game on Thanksgiving week.

“Nothing better than that. In D-2 football, to be practicing on Thanksgiving is a great thing,” Shinnick said.

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