There are reasons North Ridgeville has a standout defense this season. There’s the switch from a 3-5-3 base defense to a 4-2-5. And there’s the 1-of-11 philosophy that has permeated the entire defensive unit, a team-first, stats-second mentality that has enabled it to excel.
Still, results are what matters and the Rangers, 8-1 heading into tonight’s West Shore Conference game against archrival Midview, have held their opponents to just 97 points — a 10.8 per-game average — and have three shutouts.
The shutouts came in a row against Willard, Elyria Catholic and Rocky River and immediately followed the one blip on an otherwise perfect season — a 35-7 loss to unbeaten Avon back in Week 4.
“I don’t like to talk about that one,” said senior defensive end Eric Knoblauch, who is second on the team with 51 tackles and first with four sacks. “With the Avon game, they outscored us. We knew we had to step it up, so we prepared mentally and physically and took it to the other teams with our defense.”
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Added senior co-captain and defensive tackle Mitch Bulaga: “Our goal is to get shutouts, so we get disappointed when teams score on us. That (Avon) game was definitely a fluke, and if you look at the other games since, that shows it loud and clear.”
Veteran coach Jeff Riesen believes the offense was the defense’s worst enemy against the Eagles.
“As I look back at that Avon game, we didn’t do the job offensively,” he said. “We put the defense in bad positions with too many three-and-outs, and if you do that, you know that (Justin) O’Rourke and the rest of that offense will find a way to the end zone.
“It’s the same thing with this week’s game. Our best defense may be our offense. If we can control the ball, our defense will be fine. If we keep putting the defense back on the field with Cody Callaway, they’ve shown the ability to score points. So we’ve got to do the job in both facets.”
Riesen is quick to credit defensive coordinator John Pieschalski and his assistants for whatever success the Rangers have had on that side of the ball.
“John’s been my defensive coordinator for the last five years and has been with me ever since I came back to North Ridgeville,” Riesen said. “He and his assistants continue to come up with great game plans on the defensive side.”
The move to a 4-2-5, which is used primarily by Texas Christian University and Mount Union, was a byproduct of offseason clinics the coaches attended.
“We decided that this defense works better with our philosophy,” Riesen said. “We researched it and decided to go with it.
“I think anytime you coach defense, the key is getting 11 guys playing together and not making big mistakes that leave a receiver wide open or a missed tackle that leads to a long touchdown run, so our kids have done a great job of containing the other team’s offense. We haven’t given up the big play. The kids believe in each other and play hard together.”
Linebacker David Riley, an All-WSC and All-District selection last season, leads the team with 61 tackles and has two fumble recoveries. Jake Lavelle has matched Knoblauch with 51 tackles, while linebacker Matt Dawson — whose job is to relay the play calls in from Pieschalski — has 30 tackles, a sack, two passes defensed and a team-best three fumble recoveries.
“We had a good idea coming in that we’d have a good defense,” Bulaga said. “We had a lot of returning starters and a lot of depth with the juniors.
“This whole offseason, we didn’t want to stop working. Good wasn’t good enough for us, we wanted to be perfect, and that’s been the mind-set throughout.”
Watkins leads the team with four of the Rangers’ nine interceptions and added two passes defensed. Bunevich, who starts at the other cornerback spot when not handling the starting quarterback duties, has added two interceptions, three passes defensed and nine tackles.
“P.J. has never complained, regardless if we’ve played him at corner or free safety,” Riesen said. “He’s made big pass defenses for us. He had a big interception to seal the win against Garfield Heights earlier in season. And against EC in the mud, where it went into overtime, the last play of the game was a pass into the end zone that P.J. knocked down.
“I’m proud of his performance as a team player. He never complains and plays both ways at two very demanding positions. He and Mitch are our captains, and it’s nice to see a captain back up what that means. They’ve both certainly done that.”
Most of the defensive starters also start on offense. Staying fresh for 32 minutes has been a big key to the team’s success.
“The breaks in between the quarters help a lot,” Knoblauch said. “If I need a break or I start cramping, the coaches will take me out. But I like to think like a tough-minded kid. My mind-set going in is, ‘I don’t need to come out.’ There’s been two games this season where I played all but maybe two snaps combined.
“It’s just all about mentality and toughness. I believe our team is filled with guys who have that same mentality and toughness, and that shows every single week.”
Knoblauch said it’s all about the team, not individuals.
“We take defense seriously,” he said. “Coach sends in the plays and we try to execute them to the best of our ability. Individually, I honestly don’t care about stats. I like to think of our defense as a whole, and not about one person.
“If I don’t do my job, our linemen are going to go back to our backers, and our backers won’t be in the position to make plays. Everyone on our unit needs to do their jobs or else we’ll get ran and passed over, and we can’t have that.”
For Riesen, communication between his coaches and players is huge.
“We really try to emphasize that to our football team, whether on offense or defense, to communicate to coaches if things could work or don’t work,” he said. “If they’re out there and notice tendencies, such as blitzes in certain situations that could work, we want them to come to us with those suggestions. Those are things that I’ve seen us grow with this season.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.