As defensive coordinator Josh Hjorth walked away from the Warren football field last Friday night, he slipped off his play-card sleeve to reveal a faded “46” written in marker on his left arm. Earlier in the week a local preps expert predicted his Stevenson defense would allow that many points to the Blue Devils, and do it in a losing effort.
Hjorth and the Patriots defense had other ideas.
Facing an uphill battle thanks to four first-half turnovers from its offense, the Stevenson defense dug in, made big play after big play and held the high-powered Warren offense – which entered its homecoming game averaging 36.2 points – to one late touchdown in a 21-7 win to push their record to 4-2 and win streak to four.
“This is something that’s built up over years,” Hjorth said. “We want to be known for our defense. We had a great opportunity tonight to take on a heck of an offense that has weapons all over the place, fly around and get after the football and that’s what we were trying to do.”
And it’s exactly what the Patriots did. Through five games the defense had played well, allowing 10.8 points and creating 10 turnovers behind the efforts of seniors Matt Morrissey, Itai Gerchikov and junior Nick Dillon. But with a Patriots offense that had averaged nearly 37 points per game – and almost 50 in three wins – Hjorth’s defense hadn’t been put in a position to win or lose a game.
An expected shootout Friday night changed course as both offenses traded punts on their first possessions, but Stevenson quarterback Willie Bourbon threw interceptions on the Patriots’ second and third possessions, giving the Blue Devils field position inside their opponent’s 40-yard-line on both occasions.
That’s when Hjorth’s group went to work. Junior linebacker Jimmy Marchese swung the momentum with a 12-yard sack on first down, and two plays later the Patriots defensive line plowed through to stop Warren on a fourth-and-two. Following Bourbon’s second giveaway, Warren marched down to the Stevenson 10 when quarterback Andrew Nickell rolled out right and looked for tight end Kyle Whitmer in the end zone.
Waiting there was Morrissey, who dove in front of the pass and intercepted Nickell’s pass to again stop the Warren offense and, more important, swing momentum back in the Patriots’ favor.
“That (interception) was perfect,” Hjorth said. “We talk about it, but to actually be able to do stuff like that out on the field, he’s a heck of an athlete.”
Two more times Stevenson turned the ball over by way of Bourbon interceptions, and two more times the Stevenson defense stood its ground. In losses to Indian Trail (Wis.) and Homewood Flossmoor in Weeks 1 and 2, six Stevenson turnovers changed the course of the game and resulted in Patriots losses. But facing their biggest test yet, Hjorth’s unit was quick to the ball, pressured Nickell into five sacks and was in position defending the pass.
The Patriots want it kept quiet, but their goal is to be considered among the elite in the state. And while a handful of future Division I athlete walk into the huddle on any given play – wide receiver Cameron Green saw time in the defensive backfield for the first time – Dillon said in the preseason that as the year went on it would be those other players that would make the difference.
That showed in the second half. Senior defensive end Zack Kozub, starting in place of the injured Pat O’Connell, tallied eight tackles, including a team-high three for a loss; linebackers Josh Junker, Marchese and Gerchikov combined for 32 tackles and flew to the ball all night to stop the Blue Devils run game; Jason Vavrick, who has stepped in at center in place of the injured Henry Sise, sacked Nickell on third down to force a 4th and 15 that the Patriots also stopped. Seven plays later Bourbon found Morrissey on a 68-yard catch-and-run touchdown to extend the lead to 15-0.
“We’re undersized, we’ve got some small guys that we ask to get in there, fight scrape,” Hjorth said. “(Warren) has a big offensive line and our smaller guys got in there, fought through and our linebackers filled the gaps like they needed to.”
But not even that lead was enough for the defense. On the next Warren possession, cornerback Kevin Pearson intercepted Nickell and returned it to the Warren 15 that set up the Patriots’ final touchdown of the night, a Cam Green 8-yard score.
“We have a lot of speed on that field which allows them to make a lot of plays,” McNamara said. “It’s funny how those guys can fill on the run and then cover a receiver on a wheel route 30 yards downfield. They’re those kinds of athletes, and we ask them to do a lot and they stepped up to the challenge.”
In all, the Blue Devils unofficially were 1-for-5 on 4th and less than two yards. And on the one play Warren converted, they were stuffed on another later in the drive. The talent is there and helps, but Dillon, the defense’s emotional leader, said summer workouts and heart pay dividends on those plays when it’s the Pats’ front seven against the Warren offensive line.
“Just heart,” Dillon, who finished with three tackles while also playing right tackle on offense, said. “We’ve been grinding since the summer and we just play with great heart. And to beat them on their homecoming was a great win.”
The defense’s motto all year has been “tightening the wrench,” an effort to get better each day with the end result hopefully being that the unit is playing its best football when the calendar flips to November.
Hjorth expected the wrench to tighten Friday night in Gurnee, but the fact that the defense took an extra turn or two only means the bar has risen on what will be expected of them going forward.
“It means we’re slowly figuring it out. Again, we’re always trying to take another step,” he said. “Tonight we took a step farther than we wanted to, but it’s an opportunity to get better and our seniors really stepped up, they rose to the challenge.”