Inside the Richland locker room is a goal-oriented checklist. It doesn’t track all of Tanner Solarczyk’s rushing touchdowns or quarterback Matt Shaffer’s completions to talented receivers Kyle Flick and Luke Shertzer.
It’s a defensive checklist, and it’s filling up as fast as the Rams have lit up the scoreboard this season.
“Every game when we hold a team under 10 points, we get a check,” said senior Derek Crawford, a three-year starter who mans the center and defensive tackle positions for undefeated Richland (11-0). “Off the top of my head, I’m not sure how many checks there are.”
For holding opponents to 10 points or fewer, Richland has earned six check marks.
Three of those have come in the last three weeks as the underrated Rams defense has allowed seven points. They shut out Central Cambria. The Rams held high-powered Bellwood-Antis to a touchdown in the regular season finale, and they’re coming off another shutout victory - their fourth of the season - against Penn Cambria in the quarterfinals of the District 6 Class AA playoffs.
“We feel like our defense is tremendously underrated,” said Crawford, who has 68 tackles and 51⁄2 quarterback sacks. “We run a high-octane spread offense and our defense never seems to get much credit. We look forward to pitching shutouts. We want to limit yards and points. Shutting out our opponents is one of our big goals every week.”
Top-seeded Richland and its undervalued but dominant defense, which has generated 351⁄2 sacks, faces one of its toughest tests Friday night.
The Rams host fourth-seeded Tyrone (8-3), the defending District 6 champs and a PIAA finalist last year.
It’s a challenge the defense is eagerly anticipating.
“Our defense has been awesome the last two weeks going up against some of the best football teams in the area,” Richland coach Brandon Bailey said. “We have kids who like to get to the football.”
Like junior linebacker Ben Verhovsek, who has 87 tackles despite missing two games because of injury.
“He’s been our leading tackler the last couple years and he’s played through injuries this year,” Bailey said. “He’s one of those guys, if you see us play, you know he’s there. He plays with a lot of violence.”
Bailey used that word to describe several of his defenders.
There’s junior Jacob Urban, who has a team-high 102 tackles. Junior defensive end Elijah Metzgar is the fastest player on the team and has has nine sacks for minus-91 yards.
Senior Josh Dininny, a player Bailey says will be playing on Saturdays next year, is a run-stuffing force.
Flick, Shertzer and Nico Pecora comprise a ball-hawking secondary not afraid to take on taller receivers and bigger running backs.
“I think a big reason why we’ve been successful is we’re pretty deep with talent,” Crawford said. “The drills that we do, the coaches do a good job getting us ready. They changed the whole culture of our defense.”
Richland’s coaching staff is probably working on a way to stop, or at least hinder the progress of Tyrone running back junior James Oliver, who has 1,849 yards and 26 touchdowns while averaging 8.3 yards per carry.
“He’s a great running back. He’s unlike most running backs we’ve seen,” Crawford said. “We have to follow our game plan. If we follow what the coaches want us to do, we should be successful.”
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