CANTON A big reason for the St. Lawrence University football teams turnaround this season has been the play of the Saints defense.
SLU (5-1 overall, 3-0 conference) is tied for first place in the Liberty League standings near the halfway point of conference play after finishing 0-10 last year.
The Saints will play their first road game since Sept. 28 on Saturday when they face Springfield (Mass.) in a Liberty League contest at 1:30 p.m.
One of the reasons the Saints defense has performed well has been the play of senior linebacker Obi Nwaigwe (pronounced Wehg-Way), who ranks third on the team with 43 tackles. He leads the team with 7 1/2 sacks and ranks fourth in NCAA Division III with an average of 2.7 tackles-for-loss a game.
He plays extremely hard, Saints coach Mark Raymond said. He never takes a play off. A lot of his sacks and tackles for losses have come on hustle plays, and never being out of the play. Although he might be blocked, he never stays blocked and continues to pursue.
Nwaigwe, a native of Valley Stream on Long Island, said his first name in Nigerian means, Gods heart.
Through its first six games, the Saints defense has allowed 15.2 points per game, despite giving up an average of 313 yards. Teams have moved the ball against the Saints during games, especially in the second half, but SLU has had the ability to make a big stop on defense when it needs to or cause timely turnovers.
SLUs defense has forced 20 turnovers already this season, 10 via fumble and 10 intercepted passes.
During the breaks we have, while the offense is on the field, the coaches tell us to keep pushing, keep showing effort and toughness, Nwaigwe said. Its affecting how we play when we need those big stops, when it comes down to the (game) on the line, we show up. Its not shocking that were doing really well. Were listening to the coaches and putting in a lot of effort on toughness and focus. Were actually playing as a team.
One reason the Saints have won so many games is the defense making it tough for opposing teams to score when the get the ball inside SLUs 20-yard line, an area known to coaches and players as the red zone.
The opposition has been in SLUs red zone 23 times this season, but scored only nine touchdowns in those visits. Five other teams the opposition has only come away with a field goal.
One of our big focus points is performing under pressure and winning pressure situations and these guys have had the ability to step up in critical parts of the game, whether it be in the red zone or on third down, Raymond said. In the red zone, weve proven we can stop people.
Another component in the defenses turnaround this season has been the play of several freshmen.
Alec Dietsch has a team-high 51 tackles, and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. James Holley-Grisham is second with 49 tackles. Jayson Leigh has picked off three passes and recovered a fumble for the Saints.
These freshmen are really good, Nwaigwe said. I never played with (freshmen) as good as them, not even in high school. They really step up when we need them.
The key roles performed by young players is impressive to Nwaigwe because, when he was a freshman, he was only a member of SLUs scout team. He did not emerge as a regular in the lineup until this season.
Its been a long process, he said. There were a lot of kids in front of me, who were just as good as me, and I learned a lot from them. A lot of them still reach out to me and text me. (Assistant coach Nate Howard) played here and he taught us a lot of stuff about being a Saint and encouraged us a lot.
When Nwaigwe was a freshman he was part of a team that surprised fans, winning the Liberty League championship and making the NCAA Division III Tournament.
This years squad has a chance to match that achievement but still has four games left to play. After the matchup against Springfield (3-3 overall, 0-3 conference), SLU hosts Worcester Polytechnic Institute (2-4, 1-2) and then faces a potential championship game at Hobart (5-0, 3-0) before ending conference play at home against Merchant Marine Academy (3-1, 0-1).
Were pleased where we are, Raymond said. Weve played real well to this point. We dont look past Springfield. Thats our next opponent. Our goal is to go 1-0 this weekend.
SU SETS 14 NONCONFERENCE SLATE
Syracuse University released its 2014 nonconference schedule this week, highlighted by a Sept. 27 matchup with Notre Dame at MetLife Stadium in the third installment of the New York College Classic.
SU will open the year by hosting Villanova of the FCS on Aug. 30. It is then scheduled for a bye in week two, but coach Scott Shafer expects that date to be filled when the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule is finalized.
The Orange will play at Central Michigan on Sept. 13 and host Maryland on Sept. 20. The Terrapins will leave the ACC for the Big Ten at seasons end.
SUs conference schedule will include home games against Duke, Florida State, Louisville and North Carolina State. It will play road games against Boston College, Clemson, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. Dates and times for those games will be set later.
Sportswriter Cap Carey covers St. Lawrence University football for the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Times sportswriter Josh St.Croix contributed to this report.