CARTHAGE -- Defense wins championships.

It's one of the most tired clichés in sports, but there is a reason the same sayings are repeated year after year. They're at least partially true.

Carthage (12-2) still has one final hurdle standing in the way of its fifth state championship since 2008, but without the Bulldogs' superb performance on defense during the playoffs, the season would have been over long before now.

“It’s been unbelievable," Carthage coach Scott Surratt said. “The reason we’re here today right now is our defense."

Carthage's Mykel Gates (25) intercepts a pass in the second quarter of the Bulldogs' 33-31 win over Henderson in their Class 4A Division I regional semifinal on Nov. 25 in Longview.

To borrow another old cliché, it's now how you start, but how you finish. That is also applicable to the Carthage defense, which has been at its best late in games throughout the postseason.

In the bi-district round, Carthage trailed Silsbee by three points late in the fourth quarter, but the Bulldogs' defense held on fourth-and-goal in the final two minutes, setting the stage for Carthage's improbable, 90-yard, game-winning drive.

Two weeks later against Henderson, after allowing three third-quarter touchdown runs from Lions star running back Lakendrick VanZandt totaling 168 yards that gave Henderson a 31-30 lead, Carthage tightened up defensively in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs shut out Henderson over the final 12 minutes, and the offense produced a game-winning field goal.

In the quarterfinal round, Stafford used a pair of big special teams plays to jump ahead of Carthage, 26-14, at halftime. Stafford didn't score in the second half, and the Bulldogs survived by a point.

Carthage's Mekhi Colbert (left) comes away with an interception on a pass intended for Henderson's Trestan Ebner during their game Sept. 30 in Carthage.

But last week's triple overtime semifinal win over China Spring was the Carthage defense's biggest test of all.

Despite turning the ball over five times on offense, Carthage's defense minimized the effects by allowing just seven points off turnovers. The three second-half giveaways, including one in the first overtime period, did not matter because China Spring could only muster three points, five first downs, and 90 yards combined in the third and fourth quarters and three OT sessions.

"Offensively, we kept putting (the defense) in bad positions and a lot of times defenses get their head down, and then all of a sudden it’s a busted assignment or not playing as hard," Surratt said. "But not this team. If we put them on the 1-yard line, they may score but they’re gonna earn it.”

In the first half, China Spring ran for 143 yards on 24 carries. The Cougars ended the half with a 16-play, 67-yard drive that resulted in a field goal and a 17-13 lead.

However, China Spring could only move 84 yards on 28 rushing attempts in the final two quarters and overtime.

“We had to be more physical. In the first half we twiddled around too much," said Carthage junior linebacker Mykel Gates, who leads the Bulldogs in tackles on the season with 151. "Once we finally got settled in, we knew they couldn’t play with us.”

Coaches spend all week installing game plans for their upcoming opponents, but in Carthage's case, second-half adjustments have been just as important.

Carthage DE Tre Gatlin. (Rob Graham,

“We figure out what we’ve been doing wrong when we go into halftime," said senior cornerback Nic Moore. "We know we always have our backs against the wall. Just play smart, play our keys right, and keep them out of the end zone.”

Another challenge for the Carthage defense awaits Friday afternoon in the Class 4A Division I championship.

Abilene Wylie (12-1), like China Spring, relies on a physical offensive line and powerful rushing attack.

“They want to run it a lot more than throw it," Surratt said. "They do throw it very efficiently, but they’ve got big linemen and they’re gonna run the ball.”

Wylie is led offensively by senior running back Brooks Pepper (6-0, 190), who enters Friday's game with 1,466 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground.

“They want to get in space and they don’t mind coming downhill," Gates said. "It lets me know that it’s going to be a physical game from beginning to end. And I’m loving it.”

Carthage's Jase Dixon (6) and Mykel Gates (25) stop China Spring's Tyrick James during their Class 4A Division I semifinal at the Ford Center in Frisco on Dec. 10.