MONROEVILLE, Pa. – Having a great defense goes a long, long way. And if that great defense can set up several short field opportunities for its offense, it gets even better.
Meet the Gateway Gators, who got a stout defensive effort in their season opener against the defending PIAA AAA runners-up.
Gateway (1-0) limited Bishop McDevitt (0-1) to just 167 yards of offense, including a paltry 39 on the ground, and forced three second half turnovers to pull away for a 28-7 victory from a soaking wet Antimarino Stadium in Monroeville. The game was the nightcap of the Gateway Kickoff Classic.
Mind you, the meeting between Gateway and McDevitt was thought to play into a showcase of two unrelenting defensive units, as the District 3 champion Crusaders returned nine of 11 starters from a unit which blanked Gateway one year ago in Harrisburg. Defensive end Noah Spence and linebacker Brock Dean, a Maryland recruit, headline the unit, and Gators’ boss Terry Smith explained the black and gold’s game plan was to attack Spence all night long.
“(Offensively), we went right at him,” Smith said. “The game plan was to go right at him because if we didn’t, he’s a ‘reader’ and can react to where plays are going. He (Spence) is one of the fastest defensive end we’ve ever seen.”
The Gators offensive effort this night – 221 yards, 197 of which came on the ground – wasn’t flashy, save for the opening drive when dual-threat junior Thomas Woodson scooted 50 yards to the McDevitt 1 yard line on Gateway’s third play from scrimmage. One play later, Darin Franklin made it 7-0 on a run up the middle.
Play was stopped for an hour with 10:53 left in the second quarter as a heavy thunderstorm rolled through the area, bringing with it vivid lightning and torrential rains. More heavy rain stayed to the south and west during the remainder of the contest, but officials shortened halftime in order to complete the game before additional precipitation came.
McDevitt was getting together its best offensive possession of the game to that point, stringing together three first downs on Alec Werner passes of eight yards to Shaun Seif and 11 yards to Nate Showalter and a 15-yard run by sophomore Rashad Lawson. After play resumed, it only took two snaps for the Crusaders to knot things up at 7, as Dean crashed in from one yard out.
That’s how things stayed until halftime, score-wise, until the second half, when the Gators broke things open, thanks to their defense.
After Devante Werner picked off Werner three plays into the third stanza, Gateway took just five plays to score on a short 32-yard drive, thanks to Woodson’s 24-yard connection with Franklin and #5′s second touchdown run, another of the one-yard variety.
McDevitt proceeded to go three-and-out, and Gateway took its sweet time – 6:32 of game clock – to be exact – to go 55 yards, capped with Franklin’s third one-yard touchdown run of the night.
Eleven seconds later, Gateway went up 28-7 when Brian Jones scooped up a Lawson fumble and rumbled 23 yards down the home sideline, literally breaking McDevitt’s backs and putting the game well out of reach.
“Our defense is experienced,” Smith said. “Our defensive ends were so quick off the ball tonight. Our unit played very well, and we play 11 men to the ball. We played a full 48 minutes, not without some mistakes, but the effort was there. And that’s what we want to see.”
Walking off the field, Weachter could be heard talking with his assistants about getting the offense to start clicking so the defense didn’t have to continually bail the blue and gold out.
“We made too many mistakes,” Weachter said. “Things just aren’t quite there yet in the passing game. With the defense we have, we cannot continually turn the ball over.
“They’re a tough football team,” Weachter continued. “It was a tough opener for Werner to make his first varsity start at quarterback against a team like that. We’ve got to keep our heads above water through these first four games.”
McDevitt got a 13-of-22 night from its junior field general with 129 passing yards and one interception. Lawson added a team-high 71 yards on 11 carries and freshman Andre Robinson added 12 yards on seven carries and Darnell Holland five yards on three totes.
Gateway got a game-high 104 yards on 12 carries from Woodson, and Franklin posted 41 yards on 11 carries and Graham Davis chipped in with 54 yards on six carries. Woodson finished 2-of-5 for 24 yards, but he did not commit any turnovers. The Gators did commit eight penalties for 60 yards to McDevitt’s four flags for 30 yards.
NOTES: The Gators honored fallen teammate Darrell Turner during a poignant pregame ceremony. Turner was tragically killed in a shooting over the summer months in Durham, N.C. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Gateway cheerleaders released a bundle of black, gold and white balloons into the air. The Gateway team will honor Turner by wearing his number 25 on their helmets and Turner’s jersey will accompany the team to all games, both home and away.
“That was one of the hardest things our team has ever had to deal with,” Smith said. “I wasn’t sure how our kids would come out tonight. During the ceremony, there were tears in all of our eyes.”