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Zach Mayo

Defense the unsung hero in Spartans' postseason run

Published: 2013-12-09 07:17:00
Updated: 2013-12-09 07:39:43

Dec 9, 2013

Football: Hunt vs. Southern Durham (Dec. 6, 2013)

Southern Durham's defender causes a fumble as Southern Durham defeats Wilson Hunt 38 to 10 in the 3AA regional finals of the 2013 NCHSAA football championship Friday December 6, 2013.(Photo by Jack Tarr)

When watching the Southern Durham Spartans on the football field this season, it has been easy to give all the attention to starting quarterback Kendall Hinton and his crew of dominant offensive teammates, including running back William Cameron and receivers Maurice Trowell and Derrick Mason.

There's nothing wrong with that. After all, they do tend to steal the show with all their fireworks. But as the members of the Southern air strike have scored all year long, the Spartan defense has greatly improved in the past few weeks and deserves a good amount of credit for advancing the team to its first N.C. High School Athletic Association state championship in school history.

On several occasions throughout the year, the Spartans have found themselves in shootouts where they have needed to put up big points on the scoreboard to keep pace with opponents and come out with wins. On Oct. 18, they gave up 54 points to a talented Northwood offense in a 58-54 win. A few weeks later, the team entered into another shootout and beat the Orange Panthers, 55-41.

While Southern has faced prolific offenses all year, these high-scoring games earlier in the season had led me to wonder what would happen if the Spartan offense just couldn't continue to score in bunches and keep the team in games. Would the defense be able to make some stops late in games to help the team make a deep playoff run?

Fast-forward to Nov. 29, when the Spartans hosted a rematch against Orange in the third round of the NCHSAA 3AA state playoffs. As expected, defense played a much bigger role than it had in the first high-scoring affair. After trading touchdowns and locking into a 17-17 tie, the Southern defense stepped up and made multiple stops, allowing the team to go ahead 24-17. In the fourth, the Spartan defensive unit came up with perhaps the biggest play of its season to that point when free safety Marvin Tillman picked off a Garrett Cloer pass and returned it the other way for a touchdown. Southern went on to win the game, 31-24.

Carrying the momentum over into Southern's next contest, the big boys on the defensive side of the ball posted one of their most impressive performances Friday in a 38-10 win over Hunt in the eastern regional final.

While Hinton and Co. had no problem scoring on their own--the quarterback hit Mason in the endzone on the first drive of the game--the team scored a good amount of points off of big plays by the defense and special teams. Down 17-10 at halftime, the Hunt Warriors came out firing in the third quarter in an attempt to take back the lead. After Hunt quarterback Jacob Williamson made a few big plays to drive down the field, the Spartan defense responded when safety Jeremy Griffis came up with a big interception in the red zone. The interception was called back on a Southern penalty, but the Spartans made Hunt pay again a few plays later when Williamson threw another pick--this time to defensive back Kaleb Barfield--and Barfield returned the grab down the right sideline for 91 yards.

The Spartans got no points out of the pick as they stalled in the red zone and failed to score in a fourth-and-goal scenario, but the Southern defense stepped up again on Hunt's first play from scrimmage when Josh Manns recovered a fumble. This one did lead to points, as Hinton found Trowell in the endzone moments later. Southern's initial interception return helped set up field position, and Manns' recovery sealed the deal in helping the Spartans put up points.

In the fourth quarter, Tillman added another interception to help set up a 1-yard Hinton touchdown run, another example of Southern defense leading to good offense. Add these plays to the highlights of the Southern special teams unit, which took advantage of botched snaps and fumbles from Hunt all night, and the Spartans came away with a very balanced win while holding the Warriors scoreless in the second half of play.

Although Hunt is not the most threatening offense in the state--they like to run the ball and play slow and controlled football--both Hinton and Southern coach Adrian Jones said defense was the key to getting the win.

In Saturday's 3AA state championship game in Winston-Salem, the defense will need to be the key once again against 14-1 Shelby Crest. Very few people will doubt Southern's ability to put up points against Crest. Assuming the Spartans are good for their typical 35+ points, the defense will need to take some pressure off the offense by forcing some stops. If the contest turns into another shootout, it will be on the defense to come up with one or two big plays--an interception or a fortunate fumble recovery--to make the difference in the game.

With an N.C. State-bound receiver and a quarterback who certainly looks destined for Division-1 college football in 2015, the Southern offense has stolen the headlines and made for great entertainment on Friday nights in Durham. On Saturday night in Winston-Salem however, it just may be the defense that wins a ring.

Follow Zach Mayo on Twitter at @ZachMayoHSOT

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