Jeannette's aggressive defense has stifled opponents
Jeannette players came up with a moniker for this year's team: “Ring-chasers,” as the Jayhawks pursue their ninth WPIAL football title after falling short against Clairton in last year's Class A championship game.
The team's defense doesn't have a special name, but “quarterback chasers” would suffice. The offense is as explosive as ever — what else is new? — but the defense adds a complementary touch.
The unit is one of the program's best statistically, and coaches say it also is one of the fastest.
“They're aggressive, and they attack,” said eighth-year Jayhawks defensive coordinator Jeremy Binakonsky, a former standout defensive lineman at Jeannette and Morehead State. “They're not afraid to bring the heat.”
Third-seeded Jeannette (11-1) has shut out seven teams this season and allowed just 77 points as it gets set to face No. 2 Rochester (11-0) in the WPIAL Class A semifinals at 7 p.m. Saturday at Fox Chapel.
Only three teams have managed double figures against Jeannette. The rest of the schedule has squeezed out 17 points.
During one stretch, the jaws of Jeannette's defense closed around opponents to go 31 straight quarters without giving up a touchdown.
“We make sure we know everything about the other team's offense going in,” said sophomore Melik Gordon, one of team's top defensive backs. “We try to come down with the ball at all costs. Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”
The numbers speak for themselves:
• Jeannette has 23 interceptions, including seven by Gordon, and four pick-6 scores.
• A unit that rushes the passer with conviction has 25 sacks and 30 tackles for loss.
• The Jayhawks have 17 fumble recoveries, including two last week. Special teams also had a blocked punt for a touchdown last week.
• They have not allowed a touchdown in 37 of their last 43 quarters.
“Every play, everyone on the defense wants to be the first one there,” said linebacker Justin Cramer, who has made a significant impact as a freshman.
Even the most successful team in program history, the 16-0 Jayhawks of 2007, led by quarterback Terrelle Pryor, allowed 88 points through 12 games. Granted, 48 came in the WPIAL semifinals when Jeannette out-highlighted Aliquippa, 70-48.
Jeannette gave up 21 points to Springdale in last week's quarterfinals — the Jayhawks scored 69, all in the first half and 48 in the second quarter — and Clairton scored 32 in handing Jeannette its only loss, in Week 9.
“We kind of fell asleep early (against Springdale), and they hit a couple of plays,” Gordon said. “We got it going. Our offense made some big plays, and our O-line got a push.”
Clairton, the WPIAL Class A champion eight times since 2006, also thrives on breakaway scores and fly-to-the-ball defense.
What did the Bears do to get around Jeannette's defense?
“Well, Noah Hamlin and Lamont Wade are freaks. That helped,” Binakonsky said. “They just make plays.”
The key to the defense is the linebackers, five of them who can blitz or drop into coverage in the team's 3-5 stack. The scheme was in place in the mid-2000s under former coach Ray Reitz.
Despite changing personnel, current coach Roy Hall stayed with the 3-5.
“We can run zone or man out of the stack,” Binakonsky said. “It allows us to take advantage of our speed.”
The defensive attack starts with the linebackers. Seniors Gio Vonne Sanders and Kareem Hall are the two outside 'backers with seniors Mark Wormack and Eric Hall bringing pressure up the middle, the latter doing the play-calling. Sanders has five interceptions.
Senior Tremayne Briston and juniors Jalen Jones and Jordan Sullivan are the down linemen.
“The defensive line puts on a lot of pressure, too,” Roy Hall said. “And we rotate some different guys in to keep them fresh. They all push each other.”
Hall said his nephew, Eric Hall, an honor-roll student, is like having another coach on the field. Eric moved from the defensive line to linebacker and has thrived.
Coach Hall said he used to defer if Jeannette won the coin toss in the past, but now leaves it up to his captains. The defense looks forward to taking the field first.
“I leave it up to the kids,” the coach said. “It pumps up the defense. The offense says, ‘OK, we got our points, now go get yours.' ”
Rochester features dual-threat quarterback Ian Kouba, who has passed for 1,200 yards and rushed for 900.
“We want to try to get them to pass,” Gordon said. “We want to make plays on their receivers.”
The winner of Saturday's semifinal plays the winner of Clairton and Northgate in the title game next Saturday at Robert Morris' Joe Walton Stadium.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com.