Following two consecutive Presidents’ Athletic Conference titles, there were high expectations for the Westminster football program entering the 2022 season. Those expectations were soon hanging in the balance as the Titans’ roster was riddled with injuries.
Thirteen season-ending injuries to be exact is what has held back another talented Westminster roster under ninth-year head coach Scott Benzel.
“We clearly had expectations to win a championship,” Benzel said. “We are a little disappointed that we weren’t able to meet that goal because we have a talented roster. The level of injuries we’ve had this year has rivaled anything I’ve seen in 20 years of coaching college football.”
With the plague of injuries that Westminster has endured, the Titans have still played competitively, leading to a 6-3 record with one regular season game left. Out of the three losses, the two losses in conference came by a combined 13 points. The defense has stepped up to another level under Benzel.
Statistically speaking, this year’s defense has been the best under Benzel since taking over as head coach in 2014. The defense has held teams to nearly 12 points per game – second-best in the PAC – and leads the conference in yards per game.
If there’s one thing left for the defense to do, it is to finish the year with that top defense in the Benzel area.
“Two or three weeks back, it was one of our lunch meetings. We sat down and coach Benzel pulled up numbers of defenses that he’s had in years past that were top 25 defenses in the country. He pulled up stats and showed that we are the best defense that he’s had here. As a defense, that’s the goal, to finish as the best defense since he’s been here,” senior linebacker Ian Barr said.
The defense is led by a handful of seniors, along with several underclassmen playmakers that have stepped up over the course of the season.
“They’ve been as advertised,” Benzel said. “I was concerned about our injuries, but the core guys have held it down for us.”
Looking across the defense, one unit that was hit hard by the injury bug was the defensive line. The unit went from an eight-man rotation down to four guys who have seen a majority of the snaps.
Senior defensive lineman Brayden Thimons earned the 2021 PAC Most Valuable Player of Defense and carried that play into this season. Thimons leads the team with 50 total tackles and six sacks. With his production along with the rest of the line, Westminster has thrived on providing pressure and getting to the quarterback.
“We have a large group of good players, so you can’t double team one person, especially when we are pressuring,” Thimons said. “If everyone is doing their job, we are going to get after the quarterback.”
The secondary was also hit by the injury bug as PAC Newcomer of the Year, Kevin Wright was lost for the season at defensive back. Despite the loss, several key players have stepped up in his absence. Brice Butler and Corte Williams, along with the senior leadership of Bryce Thomas have taken charge in the ball-hawking secondary.
Playing takeaway has been important for the defense’s success as the Titans have 11 interceptions on the year. Three of those interceptions have been returned to the end zone. For Thomas, it is not all surprising that the defense has been able to put points on the board.
“When we do it in the game, it’s not necessarily a shock,” Thomas said. “It’s always been our ideology to take the ball away and go score.”
In one of the more pivotal games of the season, it was a 33-yard interception by Williams that led to a one-point win over Case Western Reserve in a close defensive battle.
“Williams has done a really good job of just getting better and better,” Benzel said. “Last week, he had a pick-six that really ignited our team and gave us a chance to win the game.”
That win over Case Western Reserve has been a sounding board for the defense as it exemplified the true greatness of the unit. The Spartans boast one of the top quarterbacks in the conference in Drew Saxton and Westminster had him “confused” as coach Benzel put it.
“Coming in against one of the best offenses, we held arguably the best quarterback in the conference and Division III,” Thimons said.
Outside of week one, Westminster has not allowed more than 17 points in a game. Since the bye week, the Titans have played in some tight games, with some heading in the loss column along with some important wins.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” Whenever things aren’t going the best for the whole team, we rally with each other and pick each other up,” Thimons said.
Along with the key plays from the defense, another area of improvement for the Westminster defense has been its overall chemistry and communication.
“More than ever, we have been better in communication across the board on all three levels and being able to communicate little things in the games allows us to play faster and have trust in one another,” Barr said.
For Barr at linebacker, he serves as the centerpiece of the defense, making sure the unit knows how they need to be lined up.
“I’m the quarterback of the defense,” Barr said. “I’m getting people lined up. If you know what you are doing, then you can line up someone across from you and it helps make up for any mental errors that can occur.”
Barr knows the importance of being a leader, especially under coach Benzel.
“It’s an honor to be considered a leader of the defense,” Barr said. “As coach Benzel being a defensive coach, it’s something he takes pride in. I think that’s been the standard since he’s got here. It’s an honor to carry on the legacy of the guys before me.”
With excellence on the defensive side of the ball expected by Benzel, he has been blessed to spread knowledge that has been passed along by some of the great defensive minds in football.
While serving as a defensive coach at Robert Morris back in the 2000s, Benzel had the opportunity to learn from Dan Radakovich, known for being the architect of “Linebacker U” at Penn State and spending countless years in the NFL, including with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I’ve been really blessed to be tutored by the best coach to ever do it in Radakovich,” Benzel said. “I’ve been blessed to be around great defensive minds and I’m proud to continue that legacy.”
Even with a team full of injuries, Benzel’s defensive ideology has stuck with his program as it has led to one of his best defenses during his time at Westminster.
“This group has really been our backbone and the heart and soul of our team,” Benzel expressed.