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Game of the Week: Panthers get it done with defense

Published on -10/24/2012, 11:24 AM

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Phillipsburg High School football coach J.B. Covington believed the Panthers would have an explosive offense this year. The program has many speedy athletes that helped Phillipsburg take second place at the Class 3A track meet last spring. However, Covington knew for Phillipsburg to advance deep into the postseason, the Panthers would have to improve defensively.

In 2011, Phillipsburg finished 7-3 and lost in the second round to Beloit, but allowed 27.1 points per contest. All summer, the Panthers stressed defense.

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"We weren't going to be able to outscore everybody," Covington said.

This year, Phillipsburg has enjoyed a big defensive turnaround, especially in forcing turnovers, and started 7-1, 1-1 in District 14. The Panthers have five defensive touchdowns and are plus-28 in turnover margin. Phillipsburg has yet to throw an interception and the first team offense has lost only one fumble.

Covington, in his 17th year as a head coach and 10th with Phillipsburg, has never had a team score that many defensive TDs or have such a big turnover margin.

Phillipsburg has permitted just 71 points, fourth-fewest in the classification, according to preppowerindex.com. On Thursday, the Panthers play host to rival Norton (6-2, 1-1). A win gives Phillipsburg a playoff berth and its first MCL crown since 1962.

"Just a little bit more focused on being disciplined and getting people to the football, so our kids have really done a good job with that," Covington said. "We have had kids in position to make plays when they have needed to make plays. The turnovers come with getting people to the football."

The Panthers have 17 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries and rank second in Kansas in interceptions, according to maxpreps.com. As well, Phillipsburg has blocked three punts. Senior safety Tad Thompson, helped by his teammates and increased film study, has six interceptions, one for a score, and two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He is tied for seventh in the state in interceptions.

"It's very exciting playing on a defense like that," Thompson said. "You have to give the credit to the line, because they rush the quarterback, which makes them throw a bad throw and that gives us time. We just do what we practice every single day, and you have got to read it and go and get it."

The Panthers returned all 11 starters on defense, but also have capable backups, especially on the defensive line. Seniors Thomas Oliff and Adam Ewing start at defensive end, while senior Caleb Studley and junior Seth Boswell are at defensive tackle. But junior Tanner Crist and sophomore Luke Jacobs see plenty of time at defensive end and senior James Pack and junior Andrew Makings have played well at defensive tackle. Phillipsburg has started different combinations with all eight players.

"We just don't take a step backwards too much from when we started rotating guys in," Covington said.

The defensive linemen have, for the most part, kept Phillipsburg from sending linebackers. Senior linebacker Tanner Aherin leads the team with 76 tackles, while senior Jacey Minkler ranks second with 67 stops and junior linebacker Hunter Kohler is third with 63.

"We are more sound in the secondary, and we don't have as many holes as we did last year," Covington said. "It seems like we don't have to send linebackers to get pressure."

In the secondary, the Panthers have had to play most of the year without senior defensive back Sean Newlan.

Newlan, also the starting quarterback, suffered an ankle injury in Week 2 and didn't return until Week 6.

"That's huge for us," Covington said. "That's helped us get through those times without Sean, too -- defense forcing a lot of turnovers. ... You can just see, whether it is a fumble recovery for a touchdown or an interception for a touchdown, as soon as it's turned over, our guys are looking to put people on the ground. That's something that we have talked about quite a bit in practice, too."

Newlan was rotated back in the mix on defense last week. Junior Grant Wickham also missed some time because of injury. He is expected to play Thursday.

Thompson, seniors Seth Derr and Brendan Ratzlaff and sophomore Stuart Lennemann have all played well in the secondary -- a role that's made easier because of the players in front.

"I didn't have to worry about (the run game) because that's the good thing about our defense," Thompson said. "I know the run will be taken care of by our linebackers and linemen. I just really had to worry about pass and just really watch the quarterback and everyone behind me."

After he watched film "on and off" last year, Thompson has upped his study this fall.

In the first game, Phillipsburg defeated Plainville 48-18 and picked off three passes, including two from Thompson. He returned one for a 29-yard score. After the victory, Thompson realized the Panthers could have a very good team.

"It really opened our eyes after our first game," Thompson said.

After that, Thompson went onto Hudl -- a film site used by many area squads -- more often, including breaks during the school day. Plus, Thompson focused and learned the opponent when the Panther scout team ran the opposing team's offense during practice.

"It's pretty obvious he is better at film study this year, pays a little more attention to detail," Covington said. "Before the play happens, he has it pretty well figured out. Hasn't been tricked too many times."

In Week 6, Thompson picked off a pass against Thomas More Prep-Marian. He studied the Monarchs' quarterback and noticed he looked right to the side where he was going to throw. Thompson has seen similar tendencies in other signal callers, studying that has helped the Panthers continually collect turnovers.

"Once I saw his head turn my way, I knew that I better cover my whole side and just really watched, and then I broke on the ball just right as he threw it," Thompson said.

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