Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer get one final football discussion in before the end of the season. They look back on the semifinals and move on to the state championship.
After one of the first plays of the Bishop Gorman High football season, it didn’t appear defense — specifically, run defense — would become one of the strengths this fall for the Nevada power.
Yet, when the Gaels take the field at 1:07 p.m. Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium in the Division I state championship game against Reed High of Northern Nevada, it will be playing for a fifth straight championship largely because the defense has been downright dominant.
In three playoff games, Gorman has surrendered just 14 points and 240 rushing yards — just 2.8 yards per carry. In the Sunset Regional quarterfinals, the Gaels held Spring Valley to negative rushing yards.
“Our defense, we just really play with a passion,” said Chris Lalli, Gorman’s senior linebacker who leads them with 101 tackles, including 16.5 for a loss. “We pride ourselves in giving up as few of yards as we can.”
That was far from the case in the season opener.
In a 28-21 loss to Mountain Pointe, the eventual large-school Arizona state champion, Gorman surrendered a 48-yard touchdown run on its initial defensive play. The play provided plenty of teaching moments for a defense with new pieces at most spots — defenders were out of place and missed tackles, opening the floodgates for a long evening trying to contain the run.
“That first game, we were trying to do too much and it backfired,” junior linebacker Nela Otukolo said.
Gorman wound up surrendering 319 yards on the ground, causing the Gaels to hit the reset button with some of their game-planning and formations.
The alterations have worked.
In the next 13 games, Gorman surrendered just 3.1 yards per carry, allowing 1,346 rushing yards on 430 attempts. It’s a significant reason why Gorman has lost just one more game, falling to Booker T. Washington of Miami, the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. Still, Washington only managed 142 rushing yards on 35 carries.
“If you look at our front seven, they are so good at run-stopping,” Gorman coach Tony Sanchez said. “They make everyone play one-dimensional. We had those hiccups in the first game, but we really learned a lot about ourselves. From that point on, nobody has been able to run the ball on us.”
And it’s not just local competition unable to mount a ground attack.
In three straight games against Santa Margarita (Calif.), Crespi (Calif.) and Bergen Catholic (N.J.), Gorman surrendered less than 100 yards rushing per game in each contest. It didn’t take long for the confidence to grow with the players — nobody was going to have success rushing the ball.
“We have that physical aspect to our defense. We come to play like that every week,” Lalli said.
Lalli was mostly a reserve last season, working his way into a key contributor and then arguably the team’s best defender. Otukolo was a move-in from Hawaii; defensive back Jabari Butler from St. Louis. Zack Singer returned for his fourth year on the defensive line and junior Noah Tialavea was a first-time starter.
With all of the new pieces, it was going to take time for the unit to mesh and find its identity, which was a luxury they couldn’t afford in playing a national schedule. Mountain Pointe is ranked in the top-20 of multiple national polls.
“The coaches preach toughness. They teach us to be aggressive,” Otukolo said. “At the end of the day, whoever is more aggressive controls the line of scrimmage. We learned that the hard the first game.”
While Lalli and Otukolo (72 tackles, 15.5 for a loss) have led the way, Sanchez says a group effort has been the difference. Singer has 34 tackles and 3.5 sacks, linebacker Kenyan Coker has 70 tackles, Tialavea has 46 tackles, and Ryan Garrett has 39 tackles and a team-best 5.5 sacks.
The pressure of the front seven has forced some teams into bad passing situations, making it easier for players such as Dylan Weldon (six interceptions), Armand Perry (49 tackles) and junior safety Nicco Fertitta (46 tackles) in the secondary.
The balanced defensive effort will be needed against a Reed team which averages 47.5 points per game, scoring 50 or more points in four of its past six games.
Stopping Reed, just like limiting the run after the Mountain Pointe loss, is a challenge the Gorman defense embraces.
“We knew we needed to step up our game. We had to carry this team,” Lalli said.