Panthers keep winning with defense
"You can win a lot of games with good defense."
St. Croix Central Tony DiSalvo can say that, because his 5-2 Panthers have been making a habit of winning with outstanding defensive performances.
The latest of those defensive gems came last Wednesday, when the Panthers won on their home field against Glenwood City 20-6.
Glenwood City's touchdown came with 1:38 left in the game. It ended a strong of 13 straight quarters where the Panthers had not allowed a point to their opponents.
This wasn't Central's best game this year, but they were able to withstand a heartfelt Glenwood City effort to earn the win.
Glenwood City caught the Panther coaches by surprise by using several schemes the Hilltoppers hadn't used this season. The Toppers went to a no-back passing game for large chunks of the game, something that caught Central's defense by surprise.
That was likely due to the reputation of the Panther defense. The Panthers have been difficult to run against all season, so this might not be the last time opponents try to pass frequently against them.
For three quarters Glenwood City gave the Panthers all they could handle. Part of that was the Panthers' own doing. They fumbled the ball away on their first play from scrimmage in the game. The mistake was quickly compounded when Glenwood City's bad punt hit a Panther in the back, with the Toppers recovering at the Central 37.
Glenwood City drove to the Panther 5-yard line, before fumbling the ball back to Central.
After the teams traded punts, Central embarked on a 66-yard drive. Glenwood City was blitzing frequently, which threw off Central's running game. The Panthers' answer was screen passes. In this drive the key play was a 34-yard screen to burly fullback R.J. Moore, who barreled to the Topper 25. An 18-yard run by Jesse Krizan got the ball close and junior halfback Zach Gillis completed the drive with a 3-yard run. His score came with 26 seconds left in the first quarter.
Glenwood City held the ball for much of the second quarter. The Panthers avoided trouble when Brian Aldworth intercepted a pass in Central's end zone.
The third quarter transpired in a similar fashion. Glenwood City drove deep into Panther territory, before fumbling the ball away at the Panther 8-yard line, with Stefan Wood making the recovery.
The Panthers turned the field position around on one play. Moore broke free for a 50-yard run. A Topper penalty on the next play moved the ball to the GC 16. Then the Panthers were guilty of a turnover, when Andrew Thomley's pass into double coverage was intercepted in the end zone.
The third quarter ended with Central defensive end Cody Olson sacking Topper quarterback Tyler Kuehndorf on third down.
After the punt to start the fourth quarter, the Panthers broke out the screen pass again. This time it was to Jonathon Stephens and the lightning-quick halfback carried the ball 35 yards to the Topper 7. Moments later Gillis scored his second touchdown, this time on a 3-yard run, to put the Panthers in front 13-0.
Central coach Tony DiSalvo said Gillis could be used at any running back position for the team.
"Zach likes to block, he's told us that," DiSalvo said. "I like him at three back because he's got good vision and he'll always get us five yards."
Central ended Glenwood City's next possession with another sack and the Panthers quickly advanced down the field. A 14-yard run by Aldworth on an inside handoff took the ball to the Topper 1. Thomley scored on a quarterback sneak on the next play to raise the lead to 20-0 with 3:09 left in the game.
The only remaining drama was whether Central could complete its third straight shutout. Glenwood City broke the shutout streak when Garrett Bonte scored on a 1-yard run with 1:38 left in the game.
DiSalvo said it was the defense that carried the Panthers to this win. Leading the effort was Jesse Krizan, who led the Panthers with 18 tackles. DiSalvo said moving Krizan from safety to defensive end after last season was a big move for the defense.
"Now he can just pin his ears back and go," DiSalvo said.
The Panthers are now 3-2 in Dunn-St. Croix Conference play. They can guarantee themselves a place in the WIAA playoffs with a win at Boyceville this Friday. DiSalvo said he wants to see a complete performance from his team, where the offense and defense both produce and the Panthers don't commit any turnovers.