STEUBENVILLE - After a regular season finale that saw Steubenville Catholic Central lose 24-0 to Magnolia while surrendering 232 yards and four scores on 51 run plays, there were some that questioned the toughness of the Crusaders, especially their defense.
The Crusaders pounded those questions away Saturday at Harding Stadium with a resounding 35-7 defeat of Racine Southern led by a defense that didn't give up a point after the Tornadoes opening possession.
"We heard we were soft and unphysical," said Central linebacker Stone Romano. "We were told we had to come out, lay down some big hits, and send them on their three-hour bus ride home sore."
Louis Fallon tackles Southern quarterback Tristen Wolfe. Fallon caused a fumble on the play.
After a 43-yard pass play set up an 8-yard scoring toss on the Tornadoes opening series, the Crusaders stayed calm, stuck with the game plan, and held the visitors to no first downs the rest of the first half.
"It was just a little of us settling in," said Crusaders head coach Steve Daley. "They didn't really give us a lot that we hadn't seen out of them.
"It may have been just a little bit of nerves, but we weren't in position on a couple of plays, we weren't lined up correctly, but we got that corrected and our defense stepped up."
Defensive coordinator Joe Colabella reiterated Daley's sentiments.
"I just think we settled in defensively," said Colabella. "Give all the credit to the kids. They stepped up and made all the plays. We may have had a slow start on that first drive, but after that they really stepped up and played the team concept. Everybody played gap sound, and I just want to give all the kids all the credit. I was just the guy calling them.
"Those guys were executing, and making the plays. Give credit to Coach Clark. He puts a lot of time in with me, and really helps me with the game plan."
After Central tied the game at 7-7 on the ensuing possession, the Crusaders sent a message to the Southern offense, hitting it for three consecutive plays for a loss. The first was defensive back Aleks Porreca coming up and sticking a Tornado ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.
"The defense starts with the defensive line with linebackers Louis Fallon, Chris Murphy and I making a lot of tackles, but Al Porreca comes up and fills holes big defensively against the run," said Romano.
After the Porreca tackle it was time for Fallon to make his number known to the Southern faithful with back-to-back sacks of quarterback Tristen Wolfe to force a punt. Fallon's No. 9 will be seen in the nightmares of Tornado players and coaches as he finished the game with nine tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. For Fallon those first two sacks were a message to the typically run-first Tornadoes.
"I was like you can try to run on us because this isn't going to work," said Fallon.
Said Daley of Fallon, "Louis is a kid that is all over the field. I'm just happy for him. Being injured and missing all of last year he worked very hard during the offseason to get back. He's had a great year for us so far."
Added Colabella, "Louis Fallon is invaluable to our defense. He seems to always be around the ball. He seems to always make a play. He's one of our leaders out there. It was unfortunate last year that Louis got hurt on the first or second play of the season.
"He's taken every opportunity this year and made the most of it. He's playing his heart out there for us. He is a key to our defense."
Fallon was happy he could help his squad with his Saturday night performance.
"Since this is my senior year I knew it was my last game at Harding Stadium," said Fallon. "I felt like I needed to do what I could do to help this team move on to the next round. I did what I could for the team and we came out on top."
The defense forced four turnovers - a pair of interceptions with two fumble recoveries. The first two were possibly the two biggest plays of the game.
With the game still tied in the second quarter, and Southern having no success with the run, Wolfe threw on second-and-13 only to have Khalil Jones step in front of his receiver, make a juggling catch at the 36 and race home for a pick six to put the Crusaders up 14-7.
"It was huge," said Daley. "Making a play like that kind of got us going. It got our motor going a little bit. It was a great play by him. It jump started us."
Added Porreca, "It was a huge turnaround. Khalil, we already know, is a big playmaker. He's a big asset to this defense, and it was just a great play by the kid."
In the third quarter Fallon forced his first turnover of the game. With Southern in Crusader territory Wolfe hit Tyler Barton for a short pass, but Fallon stepped up, popped the ball loose, and scooped it up to give the Crusaders the ball at their own 28-yard line.
Nine plays later Central was up 21-7 on a Jones touchdown run.
"That was big," Daley said of his team forcing four turnovers. "We did a good job of creating turnovers and getting the ball back in our offense's hand."
The Crusaders stepped up to the challenge put before them all night, holding the Tornadoes to 91 yards rushing, including just four in the first half. Tyler Barton, who came into the game averaging 134 yards, was held to just 27 rushing. The defense gave up 138 through the air with Ryan Fletcher joining Jones with an interception.
"We knew we had a lot of weight on our shoulders and we knew we had to step up from last week," said Murphy, who had a fumble recovery. "We also knew they were physical up front and they had big backs who ran hard so we had to come up, hit low, hit every play, and wear them down."
Added Fallon, "Our defense took it personally. We were run over last week. We all did our job, worried about what we had to worry about, and we shut them down."
Continued Porreca, "Last week we took quite a beating. This week really bounced back and had a great week of practice. I wouldn't want to go up against any team with any other defense than the one we had here."
The Central defense that was labeled "soft" by some continued throughout the game to lay out punishment to the Tornado rushers and linemen. So much so that it was visibly affecting the visiting squad.
"It was real easy to tell they were hurting," said Porreca. "They didn't come off the ball as hard as they were at the beginning of the game."