HEBRON, Maine — Defensive players and coaches know the deal going into the annual Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic.
They will have to play with one arm tied behind their backs. And regardless of how well they play at that disadvantage, the spotlight will always be on the other side of the ball.
Offense sells tickets, which is vital for a game that raises money for the Shriners Hospitals for Children. Defenders are fine with the fact that the rules of the game are designed to light up the scoreboard and give the fans what they want.
But nothing in the rules says they can’t spoil the offense’s fun occasionally.
“We know if we make that one big stop, it’s going to get us ahead in the game,” Edward Little defensive end Brandon Knowlton said. “It is an offensive game. It’s all about scoring points. But if we make those big stops, that’s going to be the game-changer.”
The offense doesn’t have a monopoly on game-changers at the Lobster Bowl, which kicks off for the 25th time at 6 p.m. Saturday at Biddeford’s Waterhouse Field.
Defense has had its days. A year after giving up 48 points to the West, last year’s East defense only allowed a pair of touchdowns, and even contributed to the scoreboard with a safety, in a 25-13 win.
The 2014 East squad has its work cut out to match that performance. The West, which leads the all-time series, 17-7, boasts an offense featuring South Portland quarterback Duncan Preston, Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist and Kennebunk running back Nicco DeLorenzo, Kennebunk QB Nick Emmons, and Thornton Academy star running back Andrew Libby.
The East’s first line of defense features Knowlton and Oxford Hills’ Ethan Edwards at defensive end, and Mt. Blue defensive tackle Colin Richards.
The defensive line also includes Maine Central Institute’s Briar Bussell, Hampden Academy’s John Chen, Deering’s John Curtis, Joshua Thibeault of Brunswick and Rusty Wilson of Nokomis.
As the East’s line coach, John Bapst head coach Dan O’Connell is charged with molding that group into a cohesive unit in six days. The task is made easier by the talent and dedication players selected for the Lobster Bowl typically possess, he said.
“They’re all leaders. They’re all the unsung heroes from their own high schools,” said O’Connell, a former Bangor High School and Bates College lineman.
“When they come here as a group, nine or 10 of them, they gel well together because we celebrate the fact that we know we’re not going to be celebrated, but we’re going to be the reason why it gets done.”
The defense doesn’t have as many tools to get it done as it would in a normal game. It is only allowed to play one defensive formation the entire game (4-3, 3-4, 5-2, etc.) and linebackers are not allowed to blitz except inside the 10-yard line.
“I think it puts a lot of pressure on the coaches,” Edwards said. “They are restricted with what they can do. They’ve got to pick the right personnel for the right job. And that puts pressure on us, because it’s basically like a tryout out there. You have to go out there and show them what you can do.”
But the defense does enjoy at least one advantage, O’Connell said.
“From a physical standpoint, the defense is always ahead of the offense because it’s just pin your ears back and play,” said O’Connell, who is in his seventh year coaching in the Lobster Bowl. “With the offense, it takes until Tuesday, Wednesday to get the timing down.”
The East players wasted no time to start forming a connection, doing the traditional swapping of helmet decals on Sunday, the first day of training camp. Lining up in practice against an East offense that features Fitzpatrick Trophy-winning QB Ben Lucas of Cony and Fitzy finalist running back Justin Zukowski of Portland has cemented the defense’s relationship.
“There’s been a lot of bonding,” said Richards, who was a finalist for the Frank J. Gaziano Award, presented annually to the state’s top linemen. “I’ve met a lot of great people. It’s amazing.”
“It’s been really eye-opening,” Knowlton said. “There’s a lot of good talent on both teams on both sides of the ball.”
Except the ones without the ball are sometimes overlooked in the state’s All-Star football showcase.
Edwards said he has been texting former Oxford Hills teammate Dexter Turner, the defensive star of last year’s game who had a key sack for a safety. Currently in Orono preparing to start his career at the University of Maine, Turner was the latest in a long line of defensive linemen who have had a big impact on the Lobster Bowl.
“He definitely inspires me because I watched him on TV last year,” Edwards said. “He was an absolute animal.”
Defenders on both teams hope to make a similar impact on Saturday, both on and off the field.
“In the end it’s all about the fundraising,” Richards said. “And we can have a lot of fun while doing it.”