In a Program Known for Offense, Carthage’s Defense Shines in the 2013 Postseason
CARTHAGE -- The numerous school records re-written by Blake Bogenschutz, Tevin Pipkin, Terian "Tee" Goree, and a veteran offensive line have grabbed the attention of fans and media following Carthage's 2013 playoff run.
Meanwhile, the defense has drastically improved during the last several weeks. Opponents have scored only 88 points in their last nine games against Carthage (13-1), which enters Friday's 7:30 p.m. Class 3A Division I state semifinal against La Grange (13-0) at Mansfield's Vernon Newsom Stadium riding a defensive streak the program had not seen in head coach Scott Surratt's seven-year tenure.
The last time Carthage allowed 90 or fewer points in an eight-game stretch was from Sept. 25 through Nov. 20 of 2009, the second of the Bulldogs' back-to-back-to-back Class 3A Division II state championships. That spanned Carthage's final non-district game to its 35-26 second-round win against Mexia, which propelled the Dawgs to their only 16-0 season in school history.
But an even more eye-opening statistic lies within the 9.8 points per game Carthage has allowed since its 44-7 Oct. 4 win vs. Rusk.
Since Nov. 1 -- Carthage's 49-6 regular-season finale victory vs. Diboll -- defensive coordinator Darren Preston's first-team unit has allowed two touchdowns in a five-game stretch.
Carthage, which bases from a 4-3 Cover 2 scheme, has yielded 40 points in four playoff games. Only 14 of those points have come against the Bulldogs' first-teamers: Navasota's opening possession in Carthage's 44-14 second-round win and West Orange-Stark's third-quarter drive that cut Carthage's lead to a possession in the Dawgs' eventual 28-14 win in last week's 3A D-I Region III championship game, which Carthage won thanks in part to seven takeaways, including two Goree end-zone interceptions.
Opponents have scored as many points on the final play of two different games -- Navasota's second touchdown and Silsbee's only touchdown in Carthage's 49-6 third-round win -- as they've scored against Carthage's first-team defense this postseason.
"We've got great coaches on that side, starting with coach Preston and the rest of the staff. They've done a great job," Surratt said. "We knew it was gonna take us a while to get where we wanted to be. We were real vanilla early because we wanted to learn base football. Then when they started getting better we started putting a lot of stuff in. Now we're doing a lot of things. You can't say enough about the staff and the defensive players and how well they've played."
The defensive surge that started in early October and has peaked in the playoffs followed a shaky start that saw the Bulldogs allow 170 points in their first five games, punctuated by a 63-39 loss at highly ranked 4A Whitehouse on Sept. 27.
The 34.0 points per game Carthage allowed in that 4-1 start wasn't that surprising considering the significant losses the defense suffered to graduation, including leading tackler Trent Jackson at middle linebacker and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who started as a freshman this fall for Texas A&M.
"I think once our kids felt a little more comfortable as the season went on, knowing what to do, I think we started being a little more aggressive," said Preston, who is in his third season as Carthage's defensive coordinator. "We had some inexperienced guys early in the season that have grown up and continue to grow up. More than anything that has been a factor, and really trying to simplify what we do."
Carthage has allowed only 170.8 total yards per game since Nov. 1. Navasota's 266 yards -- 90 of which came with the Rattlers trailing 44-7 in the closing minute and a half -- are the most in that span, which includes 21 takeaways, seven of which came in the Bulldogs' 14-point win against West Orange-Stark.
After last year's 11-3 finish and state semifinal appearance, Carthage's secondary came back with plenty of experience thanks to Goree -- who has a team-best six interceptions -- and junior Bryian Bolton, who tied a single-season school record as a sophomore with eight interceptions. Senior cornerbacks Keldrean "Poodie" Strong and Trevor Cooper also returned.
But replacing six starters from the front seven was the team's top offseason priority. The lone returnee was Mario McCain, a four-year varsity starter who has again proven himself invaluable in the middle of the Bulldogs' defense. McCain enters Friday's state semifinal second on the team in tackles (107), first in tackles for loss (20), and first in sacks (8).
Not only did Preston and company need to replace numbers, they had to replace size. Golden was 6-foot-2, 315 pounds. Jackson was 6-foot, 210 pounds. Defensive end Lane Pearce was 6-foot-7, 240 pounds.
The solution has been a Carthage defense that does not have a starter heavier than 220 pounds, but thrives on speed and intensity.
"What we've tried to do is utilize the speed that we had," Preston said.
Seniors McCain, Javontay Brown, and Ja'Marcus Roberson join junior Christopher Howard and sophomore Jarrod McLin as Carthage's primary defensive linemen. The young 6-foot-3, 220-pound McLin has become the edge rusher Carthage needed, recording four postseason sacks and trailing only McCain (25) in quarterback pressures (20). He has the potential to be a high-major recruit in two years.
Carthage's staff was unsure what to expect from the linebacker unit entering 2013.
"We didn't really know. Tra Leary played a little bit (last year). He's small, but he's played really well. James Marshall is starting to understand how to play that (middle linebacker) position more," Preston said. "Christian Allison we moved from cornerback to linebacker, which has added a spark. He and D'vodney Brooks have played that Will linebacker spot."
That group has exceeded expectations. The 6-foot, 190-pound Marshall, who is the younger brother of Carthage running back legend Dwight Smith, leads the team in tackles (114) and forced fumbles (5). Leary (97), Allison (96), and Brooks (77) are all among the Bulldogs' top five tacklers. Leary leads the Dawgs with four fumble recoveries.
"James Marshall stepped up for us. He was a youngster. When he got better, I think our defense really got better," McCain said. "Coach Preston started making calls faster, so I think everybody really started to click on defense and trust each other."
Carthage has held its last three opponents to an average of four touchdowns (28.3 points) under its season average: Navasota (44.8) to 14, Silsbee (37.9) to 6, and West Orange-Stark (36.3) to 14.
Half of West Orange-Stark's points came on a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown. Thirteen of the 20 points Navasota and Silsbee scored came with no time on the clock.
Carthage faces another quality offense this week in La Grange, which thrives on the run-first pistol offense. The Leopards, who average 47 points and almost 300 rushing yards per game, could create matchup problems for Carthage, which will face a significant size disadvantage.
La Grange boasts Texas A&M-bound tackle Zach Ledwik, who measured 6-4, 271 pounds. More than a dozen schools have offered him, including Arizona State, Baylor, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Texas, and others.
"They're gonna be a two-back (formation) primarily. "They're gonna run counter, power, zone, stuff that we have seen," Preston said. "We're not gonna change a whole lot that we do. We're just gonna study the film and prepare like we have each week up to this point. There may be a few things that we tinker with, but primarily we're gonna do the same things that have got us this far."