The biggest question surrounding Fairmont State's defense on a weekly basis isn't if the Falcons will make plays, but instead who will make those plays.
Saturday afternoon on the road at Carl Smith Stadium against much-improved Virginia-Wise it was Demonne Cox, Abu Kai Kai, Josh Ballard, D.C. Banks, Chinedu Oparaku, Michael Porter and Jordan Schaeffer who all made big plays at crucial points to help No. 23 FSU remain unbeaten and roll to an impressive 58-3 victory over the Cavaliers. The win improved the Falcons to 8-0 overall and to 7-0 in the Mountain East Conference.
Cox, who converted this season from free safety to cornerback, was huge in the victory. He recorded a team-high seven tackles, including a quarterback sack which resulted in a 14-yard loss and a fumble which was recovered and returned 26 yards by Kai Kai. Cox also forced another fumble on the opening kickoff which was recovered by Banks and eventually led to points and intercepted a pass which ended up resulting in a touchdown for Fairmont's offense.
"Give credit for the pick to the 'D' line and to (fellow cornerback) Calvin Pringles, who I believe tipped it," Cox said. "Our line put pressure on their quarterbacks all day.
"This was just a fun game. We were all out there making plays and we took advantage of those plays. Our coaches do great jobs of keeping us focused and getting us prepared. Also, the upperclassmen on this team do good jobs of leading and the young guys are really good at following our lead. We play for each other and we feed off of one another and every week we think we have the potential to get a little better."
Cox is a great example of why Fairmont's defense, which is ranked first in the Mountain East Conference in points allowed (11.2), first in interceptions (18), second in run defense (88.5), second in total defense (287.1), tied for second in quarterback sacks (25), third in pass defense (198.6) and tied for third in fumble recoveries (7), has been so successful this fall. The 6-3, 200-pound junior from La Plata, Md. started as a true freshman for FSU in 2014 at free safety and finished fifth on the team in total tackles with 43. Last fall his role diminished. He saw action in 10 games, but it was mostly on special teams and in a backup role. This past spring he was approached about making the move from safety to corner. Instead of fighting the change he embraced it. He still stars on special teams and comes off of the bench, but his role has increased and he's responded with solid play as evidenced by his performance Saturday.
"I actually love the move," Cox said. "Coach (Zach Crissup) and I were talking during the off season in lifting about possibly making the switch and in the spring I went to him and said 'Coach I want to do this. I think I can better help the team.' It's been good. I have a great senior veteran in front of me in Jacob Jean-Charleswho has helped me a lot. I'm still learning, but it's really been fun for me and I think it's been better for our team."
Kai Kai, FSU's 6-1, 235-pound redshirt freshman defensive end, found himself starting in week five after senior Marco Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury and has continued to improve each week. He had three tackles in Saturday's win, including 1.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and the subsequent 26-yard return.
"It was sad to see Marco go down," Kai Kai said. "You never want to see a teammate get hurt and be out. When that happened, though, a lot of guys came to me and told me I had to step up and help fill the void. I knew my role was going to increase and ever since then I guess I've kinda been playing with a chip on my shoulder. I don't want to let my teammates down.
"My development as a player is a credit to the guys I play with and coach (Greg) Richmond. Every day we battle and push each other to get better. We're always looking at our mistakes and what we could've done better in games and then we try to implement it on the field."
Ballard, Fairmont's 6-2, 270-pound sophomore defensive tackle, really came on last year during the second half of the season. This fall the talented youngster picked up right where he left off. In Saturday's win he had four tackles, including a sack and he batted down a pass attempt. Ballard is currently second on the team and tied for sixth in the MEC in quarterback sacks with five.
"As a player I've always tried to give 100 percent every play when I'm on the field," Ballard said. "For me that started in high school. We weren't the best high school team, but I felt if I gave it my all others would follow and maybe we could change things.
"Here it's expected of you and you want to play hard every play. I love playing on this team and on this defense. It's without a doubt the best defense I've ever played on and I think we're only getting better."
Schaeffer, a 6-1, 195-pound backup redshirt freshman safety from Woodbridge, Va. and Porter, a 6-1, 185-pound backup true freshman corner from Accokeek, Md. and the younger brother of standout FSU junior linebacker Marcus Porter, both intercepted passes in the win over Wise Saturday.
Porter picked his off late in the second quarter and returned it 34 yards to the Cavaliers' 27. It eventually led to a one-yard TD pass from quarterback Cooper Hibbs to tight end Shane Faett and a 37-0 halftime lead for the Falcons. The reception was the first of his career for Faett, a sophomore and converted offensive linemen. It was also Porter's second interception of the season.
Schaeffer, on the other hand, picked his first collegiate pass off early in the fourth quarter for FSU at the Falcons' 12-yard line and returned it 37 yards to the 49.
Oparaku, a 6-2, 210-pound junior backup linebacker, blocked a punt for FSU Saturday. It was Fairmont's first blocked punt of the season.
Laurence King is making a strong case to be selected as the offensive freshman of the year in the Mountain East Conference. The 5-7, 180-pound true freshman receiver from Greenbelt, Md. caught a game-high six passes for 55 yards and a touchdown in the 55-point win over Virginia-Wise. He also returned a free kick after a safety 82 yards for Fairmont's first touchdown of the game.
King leads Fairmont and is fourth in the MEC in receptions with 54 for 533 yards and three touchdowns. He's also first in the conference in kickoff returns with 11 for 359 yards (32.6 yards per return) and one TD, first in punt returns with 11 for 113 yards (10.3 yards per return) and fourth in the league in all-purpose yardage with 1,035 yards for an average of 129.4 per game.
"You know for me it's unbelievable," King said. "It really hasn't hit me yet. I'm just out there playing ball every week trying to help my team win. It just hasn't really set in that we're unbeaten at 8-0, nationally ranked and making some history. I'm just having fun and playing football. I'm doing what I love to do."
King's 54 catches this fall are the most ever recorded by a freshman receiver in Fairmont State history.
Senior receiver Fabian Guerra had just three receptions for 33 yards in the win over Virginia-Wise, but those 33 yards allowed him to pass Ed Coleman and move into second place all-time in school history in receiving yards. Guerra, who already holds the FSU record for career catches with 209, now has 2,599 career receiving yards. He trails the Fairmont State record holder Todd Anderson (3,085) by 486 yards.
A number of players on both sides of the football have developed into leaders for the Falcons this fall, but unquestionably the two biggest leaders of the squad this season have been senior quarterback Cooper Hibbsand junior inside linebacker Marcus Porter.
Porter, who leads Fairmont State in tackles with 55, is the team's inspirational and vocal leader, while Hibbs, who has thrown for 1,990 yards and 13 touchdowns, is considered by many to be the squad's father figure and calming leader.
"We have some young guys on offense and I want to be the guy those guys can look to and feel secure with," Hibbs said. "I'm never going to lay into someone unless they really need it. You have to know your players and teammates and know how to communicate with them, help them and motivate them.
"Some call me the dad on this team huh? I don't know how I feel about that, but I think my years of playing experience and maturity definitely help. We're getting better on offense. Some things are clicking for us, but we still have work to do."
Porter says he didn't ask for the leadership role but has been willing to fulfill it for the team.
"Most people don't really ask for that role and I certainly didn't ask for it, but it just fell on me one day and honestly now I take a lot of pride in fulfilling it," Porter said. "What makes it special for me is my teammates put it on me and I love them and this team so much that I want to lead it in the absolute best possible way that I can.
"I give a lot of credit to my coaches. I've learned so much from them. Coach (Ron) Rankin has been great. He's taught me a lot. I've also learned from coach (Zach) Crissup and coach (Greg) Richmond. They've give me the knowledge and tools to succeed and with their help I feel like for me and this team the sky is the limit. I feel like we can only get better."
Fairmont State will likely face its toughest test of the season Thursday night when it returns to action at 7:10 p.m. at home at Duvall-Rosier Field in a huge MEC game against Notre Dame College.
NDC brings a 7-1 overall record and 6-1 league record into the game and possesses one of conference's most dangerous offenses. Notre Dame is second in the league in scoring (33.9), second in rushing (201.6), second in total offense (456.0) and fifth in passing (254.4). That offense features a trio of talented weapons in quarterback Malik Grove, receiver Mitchell Shegos and running back D.J. Greene.
Grove, a 5-11, 185-pound junior, has completed 142-of-246 passes for 2,035 yards and a league-best 24 touchdowns. He's only been intercepted twice. The dual threat has also run for 447 yards and two scores on 122 attempts.
Shegos, a 6-2, 200-pound senior, has 48 catches for 801 yards and nine touchdowns this fall, while Greene, a 6-foot, 205-pound sophomore who was the MEC's offensive freshman of the year last season, has run for 686 yards and four touchdowns on 147 carries. He's currently second in the league in rushing.
Notre Dame, whose only loss of the season came in week four to No. 3 Shepherd by a 38-17 margin, is currently on a four-game winning streak and also features a stingy defense which is third in the MEC in points allowed (22.2). NDC's defense has allowed a total of just three points in the second half of its last three games.
Fairmont State leads the all-time series between the schools 2-1. The last two meetings between the schools have been decided by single digits. Notre Dame won 42-35 in Fairmont in 2014 and FSU won 33-24 last fall in South Euclid, Ohio.