August 24, 2019
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Pass defense a challenging key to high school football success

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Foxcroft Academy's Hyatt Smith (left) breaks up a pass intended for Old Town's Andrew Miller during their game on Sept. 25 in Old Town.

OLD TOWN, Maine — When the football team at Bonny Eagle High School of Standish began lining up offensively in the shotgun formation around the turn of the century, with the quarterback awaiting the snap several yards from the center instead of immediately behind him, it signaled a generational change in how the game would be played.

Instead of relying on punishing run after punishing run as many of the state’s great high school programs of the 1900s emphasized, the space created by such spread formations with multiple wide receivers offered teams the opportunity to capitalize more on quickness afoot and one-on-one matchups.

Whether the ensuing 15 years truly has seen Maine high school football programs follow in the schematic footsteps of the pass-happy National Football League and major college football programs is unclear.

Bonny Eagle has used the spread formation as much to enhance its ground game as its passing attack while achieving considerable success on both counts over the years.

Other programs such as Leavitt of Turner Center, Cony of Augusta and current contenders such as Skowhegan and Old Town have like Bonny Eagle relied on more wide-open passing attacks to generate big plays.

Scoring in general has increased statewide during the transition, and while that can be traced to other factors such the growth of new high school programs around the state, the threat of increased passing — and perhaps more importantly the challenge of playing effective pass defense — also has played a significant role.

“Especially in Northern Maine, we still don’t see a lot of pass — we don’t focus on pass a lot,” Old Town coach Lance Cowan said. “It’s something that’s kind of working its way up.

“You can see some difficulties in defending the pass, but I think that goes for any level, whether it’s high school college or even the NFL. If you have an effective pass game, it opens up everything else for your offense and makes it harder for the defense to defend everything.”

Undefeated Old Town, which will take an 8-0 record into its Class C North semifinal against Foxcroft Academy on Friday night, has been one of the more successful teams this year in blending the pass and run.

Senior quarterback Jake Jarvis has passed for more than 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns to a bevy of receivers led by senior Andre Miller, while junior halfback T.J. Crawford has rushed for 1,044 yards and 16 yards for the Coyotes.

“Putting pressure on the quarterback is definitely the biggest way to defend the pass, but to be able to do that you have to play man-to-man defense,” Cowan said. “You can’t really zone up and rush two or three extra linebackers because you lose those zone coverages when you do that, unless you have the athletes to play man to man against your opponents.

“And if you start blitzing too heavily, that opens up seams for the running game.”

One of the more effective rushing teams in the region this year has been the Brewer Witches, which will take an 8-1 record into its Class B North semifinal at Skowhegan on Friday night.

Senior Dylan Severance is a 1,000-yard rusher for coach Nick Arthers’ club, while junior Trey Wood is a punishing fullback behind versatile quarterback Logan Rogerson, who has created instant offense throughout the fall with his legs and arm.

One of Brewer’s biggest challenges in its rematch with Skowhegan will involve pass defense — the Indians used three touchdown passes from quarterback Garrett McSweeney to hand the Witches their only loss, 21-14, during Week 4 of the regular season.

McSweeney, with 1,972 yards and 22 touchdowns through the air, is one of five Class B North passers with more than 900 yards this fall, compared to just three players in the league with at least 900 rushing yards.

“It starts up front with our line,” Arthers said of his team’s defensive objectives against 7-1 Skowhegan. “You’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback, and then we’ve been working every single day with our defensive backs about making sure we’re really reading the receivers.

“With Skowhegan they like to throw the deep ball, so we might need to have somebody over the top to be there to help out. But the key is really up front.”

How a pass rush affects a quarterback’s accuracy is critical to successful pass defense but so, too, are the one-on-one battles between receiver and defensive back, which typically begin with the edge going to the receiver because he knows the passing route and when the ball will be airborne.

That edge may be even more pronounced in high school football than it is at more advanced levels of the sport.

“The [high school] rules kind of favor the offensive player where a defensive back can’t play the man while the ball’s in the air,” Cowan said. “You’ve got to make an attempt on the ball, and you have to make an attempt to be looking for the ball. In the NFL you can play the man the whole way, and when the man puts his hands up you can put your hands up and knock the ball down without even knowing where the ball is. You can’t do that in high school, and that definitely is an advantage to the offensive player.

“That being said, there’s definitely an art to being able to play the man. You have to play the man until the ball’s in the air, and when the ball’s in the air you have to make a play on the ball. That’s definitely difficult for a lot of defensive backs, and being a defensive back myself that’s something you work on in practice every day, playing the ball once it’s in the air.”

Arthers offers one specific technique for pursuing the ball once the receiver makes his move.

“One of the biggest things we focus on is playing the ball as it’s coming down and trying to go up through the receiver’s hands,” he said. “That’s what we’ve really been focusing on.”

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