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South Fayette's defense making the difference

| Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Anthony Davidson (56) and South Fayette will seek their first WPIAL Class AA title since 2010 on Saturday. Its opponent, Aliquippa, has won the previous two.

Talk about the South Fayette football team, and the conversation will likely center around points scored.

How many? Perhaps.

The Lions' offense is anything but average.

But South Fayette's defense — and the lack of points scored against it — cannot be ignored when the Lions face Aliquippa Saturday at Heinz Field for the WPIAL Class AA title.

Often overshadowed by the gaudy numbers put up by quarterback Brett Brumbaugh, receivers Justin Watson and Conner Beck and running back Grant Fetchet, the Lions' defense has equally as much to do with South Fayette reaching the WPIAL final for the first time since winning the 2010 Class AA title.

“Our defense has stepped up, which gives Brumbaugh the opportunity to throw as much as he does,” defensive tackle Ben Berkovitz said. “We have a special group.”

Though undersized — Berkovitz is a 225-pound tackle, tied with Bryce Christoff for the heaviest on the team — the Lions' defense has been successful because of unselfish play.

Instead of worrying about tackles, Berkovitz and Christoff try to consume as many blockers as possible, enabling middle linebackers Zach (99 tackles) and JJ Walker (112) to get the credit.

“Because Berkovitz, Bryce, Spencer (Girman) and (Anthony) Davidson are willing to take up two men instead of saying, ‘Hey, I'm going to go make the play,' that lets us linebackers fly around and make the stops,” Zach Walker said.

Sure worked during a 35-7 semifinal win over Beaver Falls, a game in which the Lions held Damian Rawl and Kahlil Caracter to 62 yards on 20 carries.

But an even more daunting task awaits in trying to stop Dravon Henry and Terry Swanson, two backs who've combined for more than 9,000 career yards.

“We just have to do what we did the other night, which is tackle,” Rossi said. “We never gave those kids extra yards.”

If South Fayette is able to shut down Henry and Swanson, that will force quarterback Darrien Fields to test South Fayette's secondary of Gateway transfer Roman Denson, Watson and Beck.

Beck has excelled in run support with 57 tackles. Watson and Denson are solid in pass coverage. Linebacker Hayden Orler has four of South Fayette's 17 interceptions.

Overall, South Fayette (five shutouts) is allowing 95.6 rushing yards per game, 52.6 through the air and just five points per game, best in the WPIAL this season.

“I think it's going to be our offense against their defense,” Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac said. “Whether we can sustain drives, move the ball and score.”

Also hold onto it. Aliquippa fumbled four times in the 2010 title game while the Quips fell to South Fayette, 19-16. Three of them came inside the 20.

South Fayette didn't quite have that same effect on Washington's Shai McKenzie last year; he gashed the Lions for 293 yards and four touchdowns in the WPIAL semifinals.

That prompted Rossi to take over the defense from Darren Schoppe, who left for Bishop Canevin. Tim Sohyda (defensive line) also came aboard after spending the previous three years as head coach at Canon-McMillan.

Those changes, combined with South Fayette's unselfish play, have forced teams to not concentrate solely on the Lions' high-powered offense.

“I think the most impressive thing about them is defensively, believe it or not,” Zmijanac said. “They certainly haven't given up many points to anybody.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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