It’s only a cliché because it’s true: defense wins championships.
The Greenwave football team has not been shy from letting the defense take over all season and Saturday’s Division I-A state semifinal game against Moapa Valley was no exception.
Fallon’s defensive line and linebackers brought in more pressure in the second half, forcing Pirates quarterback to rush his reads, ultimately leading to their surprising fate of not reaching the championship game for the first time in nearly a decade. The Greenwave, which will face Faith Lutheran at 4:05 p.m. on Saturday at Damonte Ranch, never trailed over the weekend in ending the Pirates’ season, 34-24, at the Edward Arciniega Athletic Complex.
“Our secondary is pretty athletic. We got a decent rush on them so we were able to make plays in the secondary,” Fallon head coach and defensive coordinator Brooke Hill said. “We forced some turnovers. We played real sound football in the second half.”
Junior Tyler Bagby and sophomore Cameron Matzen each picked off Zach Hymas three times with Matzen’s final takeaway ending the game for the Greenwave and allowing quarterback Morgan Dirickson and the offense to line up in the victory formation.
But Bagby’s third pick of the afternoon came at the most critical time with Fallon up only by three.
“Our coaches really pounded it hard this week that it’s going to be a grind. It’s going to be a close game and we knew that,” Bagby said. “We did prepare very well for this game. Our defense came out pretty slow and so did our offense but we picked it up when it was crunch time.”
After Justin Hatfield’s punt fell out of bounds at the Pirates’ 2 yard line late in the fourth quarter, Fallon’s defense amped up the intensity again. Dakota Schelling, Fallon’s sacks leader, broke through the line and hammered Hymas as he released a floater into Bagby’s hands as he raced down the sideline for a 13-yard touchdown with 2:59 remaining.
Equally as impressive as the six intercepts was Fallon’s ability to overcome a height disadvantage. What Fallon lacked in height, they made up with speed and pure athleticism.
“Even our little guys compete. Nathan Heck isn’t going to back down from anybody and neither is (Evan) Bitter,” Hill said. “They were able to compete out there and we were able to force the kid (Hymas) into some throws that we could take advantage of some things and we did. The kids made the plays and that’s what you have to do to win at this point of the year.”
While interceptions have been too common for the Greenwave – they have racked up 23 in 11 games – Fallon was able to force turnovers on the ground against Moapa Valley.
On their first possession of the game, the Pirates drove into Greenwave territory trying to tie the score after Fallon opened with a kickoff return for a touchdown. Hatfield, who was instrumental on defense and special teams, stripped the ball from Andrew Huerta, giving Fallon possession that led to the offense’s first touchdown of the game, a 54-yard strike from Dirickson to Matzen.
Moapa Valley fumbled for the second time to give Fallon a 21-12 lead in the third quarter, as the Pirates finished the game with a season-high eight turnovers. The Greenwave has forced and recovered 18 fumbles this season.
While Hatfield, Bagby and Matzen stood out in game-defining moments on Saturday, the Greenwave received overwhelming help from the defensive front including Bradlee Porter, Rylie Williams, Richard Rogers, Schelling and T.J. Mauga. Bitter, who entered the game with a team-high five interceptions, and Nathan Heck, who broke up a pass in the end zone, have been strong and consistent in the secondary.
Fallon’s defense, which has not surrendered more than 24 points in a game, continued to give the offense opportunities to capitalize on against Moapa Valley although Fallon couldn’t capitalize every opportunity.
“With the six picks and not scoring, we can do what we do on defense and if our offense can’t capitalize, we have to go back out and do it again,” Bagby said.
The interceptions, sacks and forced fumbles continue to produce results for the Greenwave and with only the championship game left in this quest, Fallon will need the defense to step up one final time to give the school its first title in 35 years.