After the Groveport Madison football team completed practice Sept. 11, linebacker Allan Joyce pondered whether the Cruisers' defense is living up to its own expectations.
Behind him, linemen Te'Rah Edwards and Tykel Hancock-Anderson both shook their heads as if to say "no."
"We can get better," said Hancock-Anderson, a third-year starter at defensive tackle. "We can get way better running to the ball, doing our assignments and trusting each other. Just the little things (are where) we can get better."
The Cruisers are off to their first 3-0 start since 2015 thanks in part to a stingy defense that has allowed an average of 161 yards per game and forced six turnovers, including a 26-yard fumble return for a touchdown by cornerback Delaney Wilburn in a 56-0 win over Hamilton Township on Sept. 5.
Groveport outscored its first three opponents -- Westerville North, Hamilton Township and Worthington Kilbourne -- by a combined score of 128-20. The defense hopes to continue its impressive play Friday, Sept. 20, when it plays host to perennial power and longtime nemesis Pickerington Central.
Seven starters returned from last season in a unit spearheaded by defensive coordinator Tom McDonald. McDonald went 31-11 as Cruisers head coach from 1985-88, including playoff appearances in 1986 and '87.
Several players agreed that run defense has been a strength. The Cruisers allowed 156 yards on the ground in a 31-6 win over North on Aug. 30, just 5 yards against Hamilton Township -- which ran only six plays in Groveport territory -- and 51 yards in a 41-14 win at Worthington Kilbourne on Sept. 13.
"Our (front) seven is pretty strong. That will be the part of the defense that brings us together," said Edwards, a defensive tackle and Northwestern commit. "But I also feel like our defensive line is more disciplined. We need to continue to be more disciplined."
Linebacker Skylar Mouser is in his third year as a starter and Joyce became a starter last year.
"Our front seven has always been very good, a veteran group, but I've seen us struggle in our pass defense a little bit the last few years," Mouser said. "We've developed a lot that way this year. We've switched some guys around and put them in different spots, which helps, and the experience they've gotten just growing has helped."
Groveport rushed for 364 yards against Kilbourne. Jalil Underdown ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries and Jashaun McGraw added 25 carries for 133 yards and a score.
Central improved to 3-0 with a 49-28 home win over Naperville (Illinois) Central on Sept. 13. The Tigers, who have won three consecutive Division I regional championships and captured the state title in 2017, rolled up 540 yards of offense in Week 3. Nick Mosley rushed for 239 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries, quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw completed 10 of 13 passes for 238 yards and three scores and Lorenzo Styles Jr. caught six passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
Central leads the all-time series 29-8 and is seeking its 29th consecutive victory over the Cruisers. Only two meetings in the past 20 years have been decided by fewer than 20 points, and none since a 15-9 overtime win for the Tigers in 2007.
"We just talk about doing your job to the point where the guys might get sick of hearing it," coach Bryan Schoonover said. "We're not talking about (this) week and beyond; we just talk about what we need to do to get better. That's one thing that keeps you grounded. Anytime people start looking ahead, emotions get involved and one thing these guys do well is (knowing) if it's Monday, it's Monday and we work on that (and) so on and so forth. We prep each day and when we get to Friday, we are totally locked in on what we have to do."