For the first 22 minutes against St. Pius X on Friday night, Decatur played its best defensive football all year, a culmination of everything coach Brad Waggoner and his staff has taught since taking over last February.
The powerful SPX running attack went three and out on its first three possessions and even turned the ball over once on a fumble.
The game was still scoreless with time running out in the first half but then, as Waggoner later noted, “the dang bubble popped.”
By the time the initial damage was surveyed, SPX had erupted for four touchdowns in a little over five minutes en route to a punishing 48-0 victory and the Region 6-AAA title.
It’s the first time since the school opened in 1958 that SPX won back-to-back region titles, and in fact it’s won regional titles three out of the past four years.
Decatur finishes at 5-5 and a 2-4 regional record in Waggoner’s first year at Decatur.
“This is a big thing we can take into the offseason,” Waggoner said. “Yeah, they have a little more talent than us, a little more depth. But what you really saw from them was a mental approach to football that was at a whole other level.
“They took the absolute best we could offer,” he said, “and it didn’t faze them. They responded big time.”
The Golden Lions rejoinder was to do something nobody expected – they passed the ball.
They passed only once last week (an incompletion) against Blessed Trinity, and didn’t throw on this night until 21 minutes into the game. That one didn’t even come from quarterback Jack Spear. He pitched to tailback Nick Ruffin who threw a 40-yarder to a wide open Michael Sikorski, who was dropped at the Decatur 13.
On the next play fullback Ryan Braswell, one of the state’s premier running backs, danced 13 yards for a touchdown with 2:13 left in the half, and the onslaught was on. Minutes later Spear threw a 22-yarder to tailback Branden Mitchell for a touchdown and the Golden Lions led 13-0 at halftime.
Spear would complete 6 of 8 passes for 120 yards, adding a 100 more yards on ground in five carries, accounting for a touchdown each way.
But SPX (8-2 and 5-1) would throw a total 10 times, completing eight for 193 yards, probably a season high.
“They didn’t just bring their safeties down, they lined them up,” Pius coach Paul Standard said. “They had 11 guys within four yards of the ball. We’ve thrown for little to nothing [this season and] they were going to make us beat them throwing the ball.”
Waggoner admitted this was pretty much his strategy in attempting to stop Pius’ efficient option offense. Decatur did hold the visitors to only 248 yards on the ground in 34 carries. Braswell, who came into this game with over 1,000 yards rushing, was held to a season’s low 61 yards on 11 carries.
But Decatur proved vulnerable in two areas Friday.
First, beginning with that tailback option pass, the Bulldogs gave up several big plays with surprisingly minimum resistance. In the third quarter Spear threw another easy pass, this one for 28 yards, also to Sikorski, then a couple minutes later he rambled 42 yards off tackle for a touchdown. In the fourth quarter he completed a 37-yard pass to Jack McIntyre.
“When you’re playing against an option,” Waggoner said, “every player has a specific assignment. One missed assignment can lead to a big play, and that’s what happened tonight – too many missed assignments. That’s the mental part of the game I’m talking about.”
Second, the Bulldogs offense was thoroughly ineffective against Pius, which recorded its third shutout this season.
Sophomore quarterback Devontae Carter, marking his return to the starting lineup after missing three games, completed 10 of 17 passes for 103 yards. But Pius was able to bottle up Decatur’s often-explosive receiving corps of Terez and Perez Cowan and Terryon Robinsion, none of whom caught more than two passes.
Decatur’s one individual highlight came from junior Nic Bentley who, until Friday, played very little fullback this season. He had 47 yards on eight carries, but that yardage was negated by several poor shotgun snaps that led to massive losses. As a team Decatur finished with only 28 rushing yards on 42 attempts.
If anyone expected Waggoner to be down in dumps, or even red-faced, after Friday’s hard slap of reality, you can forget it.
“All I have to do is look across the field at Coach Standard,” he said, “and I’m ready to get started [onto next season]. His first season [at SPX] he goes 5-5, then he goes 7-4 in his second, then he goes 11-2, and now you’ve see what they’ve done. They’ve put together an incredible program.
“We can do the same thing here,” he added. “We wanted to do better than 5-5, but it’s not a bad first step either. We won all the games we were supposed to win. What we did this season, we can build on that, especially with [80 percent] of our guys coming back.”