When it’s been good, the Bulldogs have eliminated the opposition’s best player and made crucial stops when needed like last week’s fourth-down stonewall in the first round of the playoffs.
When it’s been bad, St. Pauls has given up big plays and struggled with tackling, relying on a high-powered offense to put up points.
So what defense will show up in Friday’s second-round game at Reidsville? Coach Trey Sasser hopes it’s the unit that has steadily improved over the last month, limiting opponents to just 11.6 points per contest during a three-game winning streak.
“I don’t really have a good answer to what’s been different, we’ve just played better,” Sasser said prior to Monday’s practice. “We’ve kind of settled on our personnel and those guys are starting to familiarize themselves with each other and are playing a little better as a whole.”
The season-long maturation process defensively hasn’t come without consequences.
During August and September, St. Pauls’ starting 11 couldn’t stop the run or the pass, giving up 35.9 points and nearly 450 yards on average over the first seven games. West Bladen, a team that finished 0-11, ran off 45 points and accumulated 465 yards despite finishing with the Waccamaw Conference’s lowest-rated offense. Gray’s Creek erupted for 70 in the opener against the Bulldogs while Red Springs punctuated the stretch with a 48-point outing fueled by Blake Greene’s six touchdowns.
St. Pauls has been much better since, with the outlier being a road trip to East Columbus on Oct. 12. The 60-18 loss can be discarded on defense since four Gator touchdowns were a direct result of miscues by an out-of-sync hurry-up offense. East Columbus returned three fumbles for scores and cashed in on an interception deep in Bulldog territory to score the most points it has all season.
Bulldog victories over West Columbus, Fairmont and Northwood since have been highlighted by defense.
“We’re not bouncing guys around anymore and seeing what works … that’s over with,” Sasser said. “We’ve got a better understanding of what we’re trying to do and we’re trying to rep those schemes in practice. The guys know where they need to be and what they need to do.”
Keeping the opposition’s offense off the field and giving the defense a much-needed rest has also been key thanks to St. Pauls’ balanced attack, a unit once ranked among the state’s best this season. Senior quarterback Kane Banner is responsible for 30 touchdowns this season while Shawn Williams has 27 scores on the ground, tops in the area.
Friday’s opponent utilizes a run-heavy offense under head coach Jimmy Teague led by tailback Jayron Rankin and signal caller Devonte Williams. The senior duo has combined for 28 of Reidsville’s 44 rushing touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards of total offense. Raheem Johnson, a two-way starter, is averaging nine yards per carry and has scored 13 out of 78 times he’s touched the ball this season.
The last time the Bulldogs (9-3) traveled to Reidsville, the Rams (10-2) came away with a 63-6 win in the third round of the playoffs in 2007. Reidsville has 18 state championships all-time including five since 2002.
“It’s going to be tough task going up there with all the tradition they have,” Sasser said. “We have to play a lot more mistake-free to win. We were fortunate to win with four turnovers against (Northwood), but you can’t do that against a team like Reidsville.”