Southeast Missouri State University football coach Tim Billings entered the season thinking this would be the Indians' best defense since he took over the program in 2000.
But right now, Billings would give anything for his defense to simply not rank as the worst he's had in Cape Girardeau -- and perhaps the worst in school history.
"I thought the difference in our football team would be defense," said Billings, whose squad is 1-4 overall and 1-1 in Ohio Valley Conference play entering an open date this week. "We started to get better last year, but we're not there right now."
Not even close.
The Indians rank last nationally among 117 Division I-AA teams in total defense, allowing an average of 551.2 yards per game. Southeast is 116th in rushing defense (265 yards per game), 116th in passing defense (286.2) and 114th in scoring defense (43.6), although not all of the points can be attributed to the defense. All four figures are last in the OVC.
"We have to get better defensively," said Billings, whose squad was ripped for 612 yards during Saturday's 35-28 loss at Eastern Illinois. "If we don't play any better than Saturday, we might have won our last football game."
Billings' first Southeast team in 2000 allowed an average of 443.9 yards per game and set the school record for most points allowed with 403. No records are kept by Southeast for most total yards allowed in one season. The 2004 Indians have already yielded 218 points with six regular-season games remaining.
"Giving up as many points and yards as we are...this is the worst we've played since I've been here," Billings said. "And we've got better players than five years ago."
Following that 2000 season, the Indians' defense steadily improved each year, capped by the 2003 campaign that saw Southeast rank third in the OVC in total defense (336.1 yards per game) and fourth in scoring defense (24.2).
Even though Billings acknowledged that Southeast lost its top three playmakers on defense from last season -- end Ryan Roth and linebacker Ricky Farmer completed their eligibility while All-American cornerback Dimitri Patterson transferred; all were first-team all-OVC while no other Southeast defender even made the second unit -- the Indians returned seven defensive starters and Billings was extremely high on the group.
"I just thought we had some better athletes," Billings said. "We're just giving up too many big plays and missed tackles.
"We just haven't had any guys become playmakers for us. O.J. Turner is our best playmaker right now and he's banged up, he's only about 60 percent. He's a warrior. Right now, he's the heart of our defense."
Turner, a senior linebacker from Central High School who was Southeast's leading tackler last year, has battled an ankle injury much of this season, but he is second on the team in tackles with 39, leads in quarterback sacks with two and leads in tackles for loss with 3.5. Safety Mike Miller, who has also been banged up, is the leading tackler with 42.
Southeast's defense has suffered an unusual rash of injuries, particularly among the secondary and linebackers. Starting safety Anthony Lumpkin has missed the last two games and starting cornerback Marco Tipton has played in just one game. A host of other defenders have either missed time or have played with injuries. And junior college transfer cornerback Charles McCoy -- who Billings considers the top recruit in school history -- is academically ineligible.
But Billings said he's not about to use injuries as an excuse, particularly after what he considered to be an extremely lackluster defensive effort Saturday at Eastern Illinois.
"You can talk about injuries, but you can still play hard whether it's a one or a two," said Billings, referring to starters and backups. "That was very discouraging."
It probably wasn't all that surprising that the defense -- and the team as a whole -- struggled during the first three games as Southeast played Division I-AA top-ranked Southern Illinois, Division I-A Bowling Green and Division I-A Central Michigan.
But statistically, the Indians' defense has been even worse since OVC play began. Samford totaled 591 yards, although Southeast squeezed out a 51-48 win in four overtimes, and then Eastern Illinois racked up 612 yards, although the Panthers were the first opponent that the Indians held under 40 points.
Billings pointed out that he's not laying the entire blame on the defense. Even though Southeast's offense is averaging a respectable 376.2 yards and 23.8 points per game to rank in the middle of the OVC, he said, "We're very inconsistent on offense."
Billings said an open date could not have come at a better time as the Indians try to heal their injuries and improve in practice prior to an Oct. 16 home game against Eastern Kentucky.
"The good thing about an open week, you get a chance to evaluate your kids," he said. "We're going to look at our football team, see what kind of team we have."
"He's doing some great things," Billings said.