A much-maligned defense a year ago, the St. Paul Flyers' defensive unit has been a difference maker through two playoff games, as evidenced by Saturday's 24-0 win over Wellsville in a Division VII Region 23 second round game at Heartland Field at Red Rider Stadium in Orrville.
St. Paul has allowed just seven points in two playoff wins.
The Flyers (11-1) allowed big chunks of rushing yardage to a powerful Wellsville attack, but forced four turnovers and stopped the Tigers (9-3) on downs three other times to advance to the regional championship next week.
The win sets up an anticipated showdown. St. Paul — the No. 8 team in the final Associated Press poll — will face Berlin Center Western Reserve (12-0), ranked No. 2 in the poll, at a site to be determined later today.
St. Paul is in the regional championship for the 10th time in 18 years, and for the sixth time in the past 10 years. Wellsville was inside the St. Paul red zone three different times, and four other times inside the Flyer 40-yard line, but were kept off the scoreboard each time.
"Our defense played really well. It's probably the best defensive game I've been a part of, junior linebacker Devin Smith said. Smith returned after missing three weeks with an ankle injury, and had an interception in the first half. "They were pretty fast and we kept a pretty good contain on them," he added. "When our backs were against the wall, we were able to stand up and shut them down."
He'll get no argument from Wellsville coach Rich Wright.
"Their defense was probably the most physical we've seen, and we've seen some good teams," Wright said of St. Paul. "They schemed us up real well. We had too many turnovers, too many mistakes, and I made too many mistakes. But the effort was there. But three turnovers in the first half of a playoff game, it's just not going to work out.
"We made some plays, but not enough," he added. "But St. Paul is just a great program. John (Livengood) has been there quite a while and has it established. They played real hard and we have a lot of respect for them. We've made a bit too many mistakes all year, and it caught up with us tonight."
Each team traded a pair of possessions, and finally after the Tigers' third possession stalled, St. Paul got its first big play of the game. Grant Dilger fielded a punt at his own 34, and was able to stiff-arm a defender and get around the corner for a 58-yard punt return to the Wellsville 8.
The very next play, running back Brad Smith followed a perfectly-blocked pitch to the right side and covered the distance with 4:22 left in the first quarter. Scottie Slauterbeck added the
first of three PATs for a 7-0 lead.
On Wellsville's ensuing possession, Devin Smith returned his interception 29 yards to the Wellsville 47.
Faced with a third-and-11 at the 48, Slauterbeck withstood pressure in the pocket, and threw a pass down the left sideline that hit sophomore Jaret Nickoli in stride. Nickoli then outran his defender for a 48-yard pass-and-catch touchdown with 1:45 left in the quarter to make it 14-0.
Wellsville then took advantage of a St. Paul fumble, and drove to the Flyer 4-yard line. But a false start penalty on third-and-goal pushed it back to the 10, and a 27-yard field goal attempt was just wide to the right.
With less than three minutes left in the half, St. Paul got the ball back at its own 25. On the first play from scrimmage, Nickoli sprinted through the line for a 75-yard scoring run with 2:17 left in the half that made it 21-0.
"I thought our kids made big plays," Livengood said. "We were opportunistic, but we also made big plays.
"Defensively we gave up some big yards here and there, but we kept them out of the end zone and forced some turnovers," he added. "It wasn't a very clean game because of our turnovers and penalties, and some inconsistencies on offense, but our special teams played really well and defensively we made plays when we had to."
Much of the second half was a struggle for both teams, with the lone points coming on a 28-yard field goal by Slauterbeck with 3:01 left in the third quarter for the final margin.
For St. Paul, Nickoli finished with 111 yards on six attempts, while Brad Smith added 64 yards on 13 attempts. The Flyers were sporadic on offense, and also had four turnovers and nine penalties for 70 yards.
"We just need to continue to improve. I wasn't happy with the penalties we had, so we have to look at that and work to eliminate those," Livengood said. "And I wasn't too happy with our turnovers. If you want to keep advancing, you can't have penalties and turnovers like that."
But a strong defensive performance has put the Flyers back in the regional championship.
"We have a lot of youth on both sides of the ball, and our kids continue to step up and get better," Livengood said. "That's our goal, to try to be better than we were last week. Our kids work hard, our coaches work hard, and because of that they put themselves in position
to be successful."