Dominant defensive backfield can boost WPIAL teams
Clairton's secondary features Pitt recruit Titus Howard at one corner, Kent State recruit Terrish Webb at the other and U.S. Army All-American Tyler Boyd at safety.
“Nobody should be able to pass on us,” Clairton coach Tom Nola said. “They're our three best players, and they're all Division I guys. That's such a nice feeling to have because you know their three guys aren't going to be open. It's a comfort to know they're back there.”
Bishop Canevin coach Bob Jacoby called a pass play anyway. He didn't have much choice, trailing the top-ranked Bears by 24 points in the fourth quarter.
It only figured that Crusaders quarterback Nico DiPaolo would throw his first interception of the season, as Webb picked off the pass in the end zone and returned it 102 yards for a touchdown in the 53-15 Class A Black Hills Conference victory.
That play shows how important a strong secondary can be in the WPIAL.
Dominant defensive backfields can help a team protect a lead and, potentially, put points on the scoreboard.
“We don't have the speed to counter that kind of speed in the secondary,” Jacoby said. “You have to be more conservative than you normally would.”
Gateway coach Terry Smith boasted that the Gators have one of the nation's best secondaries in corners Todd Jeter and Anthony Davis and safeties Montae Nicholson and Delvon Randall.
Davis, a junior, has a WPIAL-leading five interceptions this season, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Randall also has a pick-six.
“No one has four guys like what we have,” Smith said. “There's teams that have maybe one or two guys. We have four who can cover man-to-man.”
That provides the luxury of allowing defenses to stack the box to stop the run and puts pressure on opponents to score quickly so that they don't have to pass.
It certainly can change a game plan. Despite having one of the WPIAL's top passers, North Allegheny passed for only 27 yards against the Gators and relied instead on rushing 37 times for 215 yards in a 14-3 victory at Gateway on Oct. 5.
Freeport has three defenders with two or more interceptions this season, led by strong safety Fred Pastria (three), and coach John Gaillot said he believes their ability in coverage gives the Yellowjackets freedom to disguise their defense.
“You can put an extra guy in the box or go to man coverage,” Gaillot said. “You have the opportunity to come up with different schemes that people haven't seen before. It will take awhile for people to figure out what we're doing.”
It helped Freeport to a 35-20 Week 7 victory over East Allegheny, which has a dangerous passing game led by quarterback Kyle Whipple and receiver Shawn Adair.
“That was a very big test for us last week,” Gaillot said. “We stopped a lot of things they were doing. Our secondary played very well for the type of caliber we were going up against.”
Greensburg Central Catholic faces a similar challenge this week against Yough, which has three times as many passing yards than rushing yards this season. The Centurions, by contrast, have allowed one-third of the yards through the air than they have on the ground this season.
“In the Interstate, a lot of teams do run the ball predominantly,” said GCC senior safety Zach Guiser, an Akron recruit who has four of his 20 career interceptions this fall.
“When they take a chance, it ends up more often or not in an interception with me (or corners) Corey Marshall and Garrett Brooks. Once they've taken their shot, they don't want to try it again.”
When it comes to picking off passes, Elizabeth Forward is another dangerous defense. JaQuan Davidson leads the Warriors with four while Jaylen French and Matt Bernardowski have three each.
Surprisingly, two of the top four defenses in the WPIAL — Aliquippa and Clairton — allow more passing yards than rushing yards.
It's not by chance but rather choice. Opponents don't want to test their secondaries. Aliquippa's Dravon Henry had nine picks last year but only one this fall. Clairton's Webb has three, and Boyd and Bryon Clifford both have two this season.
“We have to make sure we're not falling asleep in the backfield,” Howard said, “because a lot of teams try to run it down our throat.”
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.