The Mountaineers prevailed 21-9 in a defensive battle at home on Saturday, Oct. 30. The game was a premiere matchup with the Mavericks from Colorado Mesa. The Mountaineer defense allowed just one touchdown (the Mavericks missed the extra point), and Josh Cummings battered the Mavericks defense, rushing 33 times for 128 yards and a touchdown.
With the win, the Mountaineers improve to 8-1 for the season with three games remaining (7-1 RMAC). The Mountaineers also climbed two spots in the national and regional rankings, landing at No. 18 and No. 6. The Mountaineers are now in sole possession of first place in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) standings, with Colorado Mesa and Colorado School of Mines sitting back in second place with 6-1 conference records.
The Mountaineers surrendered the total yardage battle, but made timely plays to get off the field on defense. James Bryant, a redshirt senior wide receiver, paced the Mountaineers passing game with four catches for 48 yards, including a 25-yard score. Redshirt junior quarterback Connor Desch was called on to pass just 19 times, but completed 12 attempts for two scores and just north of 100 total passing yards.
The Mountaineer defense played well throughout the game, buoyed by big performances from redshirt sophomore linebacker Trevor Riters, who recorded two and a half tackles for loss (TFLs), and redshirt junior defensive back Dominick Fletcher, who recorded seven tackles and forced a Maverick fumble.
Gaines key to rocksolid Mountaineer Defense
Darrious Gaines, a redshirt junior cornerback out of Sylmar, California, has been critical for the Mountaineers at cornerback in his fifth year at Western. Gaines played linebacker and running back in high school, totalling over 1,700 yards of offense his senior season with 21 total touchdowns. After redshirting at Western in 2017, Gaines saw action as a linebacker in 2018, recording four sacks, 28 tackles and a forced fumble.
Gaines made a big leap in 2019, including a massive game against Colorado Mesa on Sept. 19 which involved nine tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. He finished the year with 36 total tackles, 8 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Gaines also blocked three kicks playing on special teams.
Gaines is a double major in psychology and sociology with an emphasis in criminal justice and initially came to Western with the goal to work with the FBI. Gaines didn’t know much about Colorado or the Gunnison area, but he fondly remembers his official recruiting trip, where current seniors Elijah Gillepsie and Will Lydle showed him around Gunnison. Gaines was offered a walk-on spot at the University of Oregon, as well as several scholarships to New Mexico schools, but picked Western after his visit.
“Everyone was so friendly with each other, I just felt like I was a part of the team already,” notes Gaines, adding “it was just super cold that day, and I don’t know why I committed honestly because I’m from California…but I’m glad I came here, because this team is growing every year.” Gaines’ visit was in the dead of winter, and he says that the temperature was about -20 degrees Fahrenheit.
When Gaines came to Western he expected to be a running back, but the coach pulled him into his office shortly after he arrived and told Gaines he wanted to try him at tight end. About halfway through the season, Gaines was switched again, this time to linebacker. Now, Gaines is playing cornerback, making full use of his speed to lock down opposing receivers. With a 40-yard dash clocked at 4.33 seconds in 2020, Gaines is likely the fastest player on the Mountaineers squad.
But Gaines doesn’t rely on his athletic prowess alone. He says he tries to watch an hour of film per day, studying opposing receivers to identify vulnerabilities and possible points of attack. “It’s just watching their routes, getting an idea of how the quarterback throws, if he’s accurate with the ball, or if the receivers are lazy with their routes,” says Gaines.
Source: Mountaineer Athletics
Part of that process for Gaines is giving 100 percent effort against the Mountaineer receivers on the scout team. “I will try to win (in practice) against Malik White, he’s my favorite wide receiver to go against…It’s just a lot of good work and fun.”
Gaines notes that the Mountaineers secondary has come together during the season. “We’re all best friends. At the beginning of the year, we weren’t really that tight, but then we started doing DB [defensive back] dinners every Friday, and we just became closer…and the bond is getting stronger and stronger every week.” Part of Gaines’ pregame routine, besides stretching and listening to music, is watching film with fellow defensive back Tim Mullin (a redshirt junior).
In the win over Mesa, the Mountaineers’ secondary was focused on eliminating explosive plays by keeping the athletic Mavericks receivers in front of them and slowing them down. The plan worked. The Mavericks picked up 306 total yards, 231 through the air, but had just two plays go for more than 20 yards: a 42-yard touchdown pass and a 24-yard completion, both coming in the fourth quarter. In the first half, the Mavericks’ biggest gain was just 10 yards.
Gaines’ goal heading into the season was to become known as one of the best cornerbacks in the RMAC. “I want the coaches to know that when they see me lined up, this side of the field is hard for the quarterback to throw to.” While Gaines’ initial goal of three season interceptions will likely not come to fruition, he does have seven pass breakups (two more than any other Western player) along with 19 solo tackles and nine assisted tackles.
Gaines has done all this while battling with back pain off-and-on during the season. “The last two games, I didn’t have my best games, because my back was just killing me, but I’m starting to get back in the swing of things and I feel like myself again. I feel like I’ve been performing better every week,” said Gaines.
Mountaineers look ahead to final two home games
Looking ahead to Saturday, Gaines notes that Lincoln University’s (CA) team is in disarray. Lincoln is in its first ever football season, and the Oaklanders have just one win on their record to date. They are coming off a 92-0 loss to Central Washington University on Oct. 30. Gaines notes the key against the Oaklanders is to maintain focus and treat the matchup like any other game.
“As juniors and seniors and super-seniors, we keep the freshmen’s heads on straight… We have been training for this… Running in the snow. Waking up early. Practicing in the cold,” says Gaines, noting that the team is making it a point to stay humble and keep striving for their goals, not letting their previous success inflate their egos for a possible downfall.
After Lincoln, the Mountaineers will close the season against Colorado State University-Pueblo (6-1 RMAC) at home. Should the Mountaineers prevail against Pueblo, they will claim at least a share of the RMAC championship for the first time since 1997. Western has won 16 RMAC championships, including seven straight from 1973 to 1979, and four straight from 1963 to 1966.