FAST AND PHYSICAL: Flathead defense sets the tone

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Braves defensive backs Kenyon Fretwell (6), Jaden MacNeil (21) and Seth Moon (36) swarm a Bozeman to break up a fourth-down pass in a game earlier this season at Legends Stadium. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake, File)

Matt Upham kept things short and to the point when he spoke to his defense following a 33-20 loss at Missoula Big Sky earlier this season.

“It’s no secret — we gave up a lot of yards to Missoula Big Sky,” Flathead’s defensive coordinator told the unit. “They really kicked our tail.”

But Upham wasn’t interested in lecturing the group or dwelling in the past. He was there to issue a challenge.

The third-year coordinator recalled a passage from Above the Line, a book written by Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer that Upham read during the preseason, discussing how teams should bounce back from tough moments, and he shared the message with his defense.

“Yeah, we got our butts kicked, but how are we going to respond to it?” Upham said. “Are we just going to let that eat us up, or are we going to let that eat us up for 24 hours and start getting ready for a big game?”

Consider that message well-received.

The Braves have allowed an average of 16 points and less than 300 yards per game in Flathead’s three wins to close the season, and the defense will be counted on once again tonight at 7 against Helena Capital in a first-round Class AA playoff game at Legends Stadium.

“They play fast; they play physical,” Flathead head coach Kyle Samson said. “They have a ton of fun playing defense, and that’s how defense should be. They’re just flying around and having fun.”

The lessons extracted from Meyer’s book were far from the only ones learned by Upham this past offseason that have paid dividends this fall.

During the summer, he and the defensive staff trekked across the state and beyond visiting various coaching clinics.

They picked up tidbits of knowledge from coaches at Montana State, Montana Tech and Carroll College, as well as at a coaching clinic in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Upham traveled as far as the University of Texas, where he sat in on a meeting run by defensive line coach Oscar Giles.

Upham, a former safety at Carroll, carried a white binder along the way, jotting down pages upon pages of his favorites points made by each coach.

“I’d be lying if I said, ‘Yeah, this is all mine,’” Upham said, gesturing to the binder he’d just carried off the practice field Thursday at a snowy Legends Stadium.

When he and the defensive staff reviewed the notes before Flathead’s season began, Upham saw a common thread that pointed to a specific improvement the defense needed to make.

“Simplifying our defense,” Upham said. “We’re only going into some games with maybe five different fronts and four different blitzes and two different coverages. We’re just letting our kids not have to think. Just go play.

“I think it helps. It allows our guys to make plays.”

Whatever adjustments the staff made have paid off, but not before some early-season growing pains.

After holding Butte to 19 points in Week 1, Flathead surrendered 30 points to Capital and 27 to Billings West in back-to-back losses.

Since then, however, the defense has been lights out.

The Braves limited five of their final six opponents to 20 points or fewer, and some performances were even better than they looked on the scoreboard.

Bozeman, for example, began its lone scoring drive at the Flathead 2-yard line thanks to a special teams miscue in an eventual 17-7 win for the Braves.

Missoula Hellgate scored 15 points, but they did so on an interception return for a touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown. The Flathead defense did not allow a score.

How has the unit done it?

The formula is surprisingly simple.

“Behind the Xs and Os, I just preach effort,” Upham said.

“There’s two words I repeat to them every day. We’ve got to be relentless, and we’ve got to dominate. That’s kind of been our philosophy.

“If we’re relentless, we’re going to dominate.”

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