St. C. defense underrated and unheralded

There’s a cliche in sports that says offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.

That will be tested again Friday afternoon when the 14-0 St. Clairsville Red Devils suit up inside Canton’s Fawcett Stadium for a 3 p.m. kickoff against fellow unbeaten Clarksville Clinton-Massie with the Division IV State Championship at stake.

Both squads will converge on Stark County with high-octane, juggernaut offenses, but it’ll be the defenses of both units that will be watched heavily to see which one can string together enough stops to make the dream of the title become a reality.

Throughout the season, St. C’s defense has been under a microscope, but each time it’s been backed up against the wall, it’s made play after play.

For the season, the Red Devils are allowing 252 yards per week and almost 17 points a game.

However, as Red Devils’ head coach Brett McLean pointed out earlier this week, the numbers are a skewed to a degree since the Devils’ offense is such a quick-strike group. That means the Devils’ defense spends more time on the field.

The ability to make plays in crucial times is the key to a good defense. It’s actually known as bend, but don’t break.

“The key to the defense has been the kids buying into what we’re selling them,” said Red Devils’ defensive coordinator Bruce Stiles. “We’ve got a tremendous group of kids who’ve done everything asked of them. Plus, play in and play out, they play hard and get after people.”

That was never any more true than last week when the state semifinal against Creston Norwayne was tied at 27 in the second half and the Bobcats had driven to the red zone.

Senior defensive back Dan Monteroso stepped in front of a pass and St. C.’s offense promptly scored to take the lead for good.

“That’s the way it’s been all season,” Stiles said of the knack to make plays when it needs to the most. “It’s always a different kid, too. Last week it was Dan, but we’ve had different guys step up each week.”

One of the knocks against the St. C. defense of this season and in years past has been its physicality – or lack thereof.

But, Stiles disagrees because the defense has proven it can play physical and stop the run when it needs to.

“When we have to be physical, we step up and do it,” Stiles said. “Again, that’s a tribute to the great group of kids.”

For the season, Luke Smith leads the defensive unit from his outside linebacker spot. He’s complemented well by Michael Ferns and Cole Stephen at the other backer spots.

The Red Devils’ defensive front has also been impressive. Corey Ernest and Derek Shunk anchor the line, while Jay Gossett and Colby Lindsay have been regular invaders of the opposition’s backfield.

“I can’t say enough about guys like Jay Gossett and Luke Smith,” Stiles said. “We call Jay, ‘big-play Jay’ because he always steps up when we need a play. Luke is our leading tackler and to do that from an outside linebacker spot is a pretty big accomplishment.”

This week the Red Devils’ defense will face a challenge totally unlike what it saw last week when it faces Clinton-Massie’s run-first – actually run all the time – approach.

The Falcons have set a state record for points in a season and have ran for nearly 6,000 yards and more than 80 touchdowns this season.

“We have to play sound, fundamental assignment football,” Stiles said. “We have to make sure the kids are the right spot and if they follow their assignments, I really think we’ll be fine.”

The Red Devils’ defensive unit has also developed depth as the season has gone along. When Ben Coleman went down in the second round of the playoffs, Justin Callarik has stepped up and played exceptionally well at a linebacker spot.

Stephen missed the third-round tournament game and Ryan Nolte filled the void.

“We have kids who step in and do whatever needs to be done on both sides of the ball, actually,” Stiles said. “I think that’s what makes us so successful.”