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HOMEWOOD – Samford quarterback Michael Hiers spent the early part of his visit with the media on Saturday afternoon at Seibert Stadium talking about the Bulldogs defensive performance. And this was on a day that he threw four touchdown passes.

Samford’s defense was that good in Saturday’s 35-12 Southern Conference win over Western Carolina. And they were particularly good in the red zone.

“It’s huge because it doesn’t put so much pressure on us that we have to go score every time,” said Hiers, who was 24-of-30 but did suffer his first interception of the year. “Defense has been lights out, especially red zone defense. I don’t know how many times they got down there, but they didn’t score (a touchdown) once, which says something about how tough our defense is. They played unreal.”

For the record, Western Carolina made six trips into the red zone against the Bulldogs. All the Catamounts had to show for it was four field goals, with three of those coming in the second half. The other two trips ended with a Samford goal line stand and an end zone interception by Ty Hardimon. Samford also had an end zone interception by Isaiah Richardson but the Catamounts didn’t reach the red zone on that one.

This against a Western Carolina offense that was averaging 590 yards and 48 points per game through the first three games. In two games against non-FBS teams, the Catamounts had 1,382 yards and 127 points. Samford head coach Chris Hatcher said early in the week that Western Carolina had four of the most explosive offensive players in the Southern Conference.

“Listen, we knew who was coming in here, they’ve been scoring a bunch of points,” said defensive lineman Tay Berry, who had seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a half sack and a quarterback hurry. “As we went on this week, there was a big emphasis on our defense. It was like, ‘You got to bring your A game, you got to give it your all.’ That’s from everybody. It was a team victory. It took all of us to do this, to continue how we’ve been playing.”

There was a little bend to the Samford defense. Western Carolina gained 456 yards on 90 offensive plays and held the ball for more than 35 minutes. But the Catamounts also converted on just 4-of-14 third down plays and failed on all three of their fourth down plays.

One of the highlights for the defense came in the first quarter after Western Carolina had a first-and-goal from the Bulldogs 1-yard line. Berry tackled Western Carolina running back Desmond Reid for a four-yard loss on first down. The Catamounts got three yards back on second down before Samford defensive tackle Seth Smither and a host of other defenders smothered TJ Jones for no gain. On fourth down, Kourtlan Marsh burst through to stop Jones for no gain again.

“We bent a lot of times but our red zone defense was phenomenal,” said Hatcher, who calls the offensive plays for the Bulldogs. "I leave every Wednesday’s practice, when we work against our defense in the red zone, I walk out of there just discouraged because we do such a good job down there. Hopefully, we’ll keep that going.”

The goal line stand was magnified by what followed. The Bulldogs opened the ensuing series with a 31-yard pass from Hiers to Chandler Smith. Hiers made a nice throw while getting hit but the catch by Smith was even better.

“They brought a blitz to the edge,” Hatcher said. “They play is a little bit more designed to throw a little quick ball out to the flat. They pressed us, Mike threw a nice ball out there and Chandler made an unbelievable catch.”

That was the start of a 10-play, 99-yard drive that culminated with a 34-yard touchdown pass from Hiers to Smith. It’s was Smith’s sixth touchdown of the season. He finished Saturday with eight catches for 125 yards.

“That was a huge turning point in the game,” Hatcher said. “It was a 7-0 ballgame at the time. We stop ‘em and then we go 99 and score to go up 14 points. That was a 14-point swing, early on, when the game was still in the balance. Take your hat off to Coach (Chris) Boone and his defensive staff. They do such a good job, probably more important is our guys execute and play with a hard edge.”

Samford couldn’t score again in the first half and Western Carolina had a prime opportunity to cut the lead in half. The Catamounts had first-and-goal from the 5-yard line with about a minute left in the half. Three plays netted just two yards and Western Carolina settled for a field goal with nine seconds left before halftime.

“That’s huge,” Hatcher said. “You’re giving up field goals as opposed to touchdowns. Those add up toward the latter part of the ballgame. It just gives your defensive [players] a lot more confidence.”

The second half was much of the same. When Western Carolina threatened, all they could manage were field goals. And the Samford offense came up with two chunk play  touchdowns – a 60-yard pass from Hiers to Jaylan Thomas and a 49-yard run by Jay Stanton – and added a 15-yard scoring toss from Hiers to Ty King.

“Our guys are very excited,” Hatcher said. “Every team puts a lot of work into playing the game and you don’t get as many opportunities as some other sports. You’ve got to take advantage of each and every one of them. You got to enjoy the moment. To see our players excited, like (Samford athletic director Martin Newton) always [says] there ain’t nothing like a winning locker room.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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