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Defensive front four setting tone for Johns Hopkins football

The players along Johns Hopkins' defensive line don't get much attention, but perhaps it's time that they do.

Senior ends Michael Longo and Matthew Connery, senior tackle Michael Rocca and senior nose guard Brannock Furey have anchored the defense this season for the No. 6 Blue Jays (11-0), and their chemistry off the field has helped them achieve success on it.

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"The four of them are very, very close friends," coach Jim Margraff said Monday. "They're just terrific guys. I think they're playing at a very high level right now. They have great energy. They have a lot in common, they play very much as a unit. It's not just one guy there. I think they all contribute in their own way, but they're all very good."

The starting defensive line was instrumental in Saturday's 24-16 win against Rowan in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. Longo had 1 1/2 sacks, and he tied freshman nose guard Lance Hammond for the team lead with seven tackles.

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Connery added five tackles (three for loss) and two sacks. Rocca had six tackles, a half-sack and one recovered fumble, while Furey had two tackles (one for loss).

Connery (who missed seven games because of an unspecified lower-body injury), Longo and Rocca accounted for all four of the defense's sacks and demonstrated why Johns Hopkins doesn't have to blitz too often.

"If you can get there with four guys, you're in very good shape," Margraff said. "You at least want to start a game like that, knowing that you can get some pressure so that the quarterback doesn't have all day to throw. We have four guys that can get there.

"We like to bring pressure when we can, and our linebackers are very good at that. But a lot of times, with line stunts, we can put some pressure on the quarterback without having to sacrifice anything in coverage."

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Saturday's second-round game between the Blue Jays and No. 7 Hobart (11-0) pits two of the best teams at protecting their quarterbacks. Johns Hopkins has surrendered just seven sacks this fall (good enough to tie for the sixth-fewest in the nation), and the Statesmen have allowed just eight sacks (tied for 12th-fewest).

Longo leads the defense with 10 sacks this season. Rocca ranks second with five, Connery is third with 2 1/2, and Furey is tied for seventh with one. But Margraff said the front four also understands that there is more to their assignments than just generating a pass rush.

"You've got to be able to rush the passer, but you always want to be able to stop the run first -- or at the very least let your linebackers work," Margraff said. "A lot of times, it's the front four's job to pick up the offensive linemen and fullbacks and let the linebackers work and make tackles. But our guys get to the ball-carrier an awful lot. They're a good group."

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