In the Three Rivers North, the secondaries do not get much work on a weekly basis.
In the predominantly run-heavy league, cornerbacks and safeties are most often relied on to help against the rush than to cover receivers downfield.
This has made the performance of the Newman Comets’ defensive backs all the more impressive in the few games where they have faced an opposing quarterback who likes to throw the pigskin around.
After allowing only four passing touchdowns all year – while racking up 17 interceptions – the Comets’ DBs know they’ll have to be on their toes against the balanced attack Momence (8-3) will bring to the gridiron in Saturday’s Class 2A quarterfinal.
“We’ve known all year we can make plays,” junior safety Nolan McGinn said, “and now we want to prove that we can go out there and do it. We’ve been waiting for this opportunity all year, and we’re ready to show what we’ve got.”
Only five times in 11 games have the Comets (10-1) allowed 100 yards through the air, and only one time has an opponent thrown for more than 150. One-third of the 2,555 yards Newman’s defense has allowed has come in the passing game (980), and just one-fifth of the 19 TDs allowed came through the air.
But it’s the defensive scheme that’s allowed McGinn and corners Brandon Ahlgrim and Trevor Bolin to shine at various times.
“We put them on an island, and we trust they’ll do their part and stick close to the receivers,” Newman coach Mike Papoccia said. “All three of those guys are really good athletes, and they all take so much pride in what they do. They don’t want to make a mistake that will hurt the team, so they’re good at making plays on the ball when it comes their way.”
Last week, it was Bolin making a play on the ball that proved to be a big momentum swing early on against Eastland-Pearl City.
The junior stepped in front of a Wildcatz halfback pass in the end zone for a key interception to preserve a 13-0 lead and erase a muffed punt.
“They were just pounding it down our throats, and then we give them great field position with the turnover,” Bolin said. “It always feels good to make big plays to help your team, and on defense, that usually means stopping the other team from scoring. I saw the chance to make a big play and give us back the momentum, and it worked out.
“Key players make key plays, especially in the playoffs, and it’s been fun to be a part of that the past 2 weeks.”
Papoccia is quick to point out that it’s not all on the DBs in the passing game, and the players give a lot of credit to the puss rush. The veteran coach knows his linemen and linebackers need to put pressure on Momence QB Aaron Cantwell (152-for-261, 2,177 yards, 26 TDsm 9 INTs), “or he’s going to beat us downfield.”
Opposing passers are completing 47.4 percent of their passes against the Comets, and only twice all season has a quarterback completed more than 50 percent of his passes in a game. Newman has allowed 85.5 pass yards per game – compared to 146.8 rush yards per contest – and is outscoring its opponents by an average of 44.4-11.7 each week.
Bolin and McGinn say the best part about being a bigger part of the defensive scheme this week and last is that they enjoy the challenge of keeping themselves on edge every snap.
And while it’s tough to get reps defending the pass in games throughout the course of a Three Rivers North season, 7-on-7 drills are a part of practice every day, even in the team they’re facing that weekend is “a 100 percent rushing team,” according to Ahlgrim.
“It’s definitely been fun, but it’s nerve-racking too,” Ahlgrim said. “We know if we give up a big play behind the defense, it all falls down on us, so we do our best not to let that happen. We accept that challenge, and this new experience these last few weeks has been good for us.
“When you’re on an island, you just have to do your job and not let the receiver get away from you or behind you. You anticipate what route he might run, then react to what he does, and that all comes back to the coaches doing a great job preparing us every week all season long. We’re ready to go whenever the other team drops back to pass … and there might be a lot of that on Saturday.”
They put the ‘D’ in DB
• The Comets’ secondary has limited opposing QBs to 47.4 percent passing this season, with four TDs allowed against 17 interceptions. Only once has an opponent thrown for more than 150 yards in a game, as Newman is allowing 85.5 pass yards per game.
Click here to see Assistant Sports Editor Christopher Heimerman preview the quarterfinal match in this week's SVM Blitz.
Class 2A quarterfinal
Newman (10-1) at Momence (8-3)
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Momence H.S.
Radio: 102.7 FM, 1240 AM
Twitter: Dan Woessner (@DanWoessner)