FORTVILLE — Overdue was the word Mt. Vernon’s Mitch McCarthy used to explain it. A priority is how Nathan Seifert summed it up. Charles DeGraff called it a long time coming.
Regardless of how the senior linebacker trio put it, 24 games was enough.
With more than 280 minutes played and nearly two seasons in between, last week’s 13-0 shutout of Class 4A Pendleton Heights in the Sectional 22 semifinals brought out the Marauders’ defensive best — and the all important “blackout” white board.
A possession of pride for the hard-hitting black curtain, the ink detailing each shutout recorded the past six years had dried twice over in stagnant anticipation.
Story continues below gallery
It was due time for a fresh addition, said McCarthy, and last week’s stifling effort marked the defense’s fifth “blackout” since Mt. Vernon head coach Doug Armstrong took over in 2011. Their first since Oct. 10, 2014.
“That’s was phenomenal. We talked about it all week, how we had to get that blackout. They got close to the red zone a couple of times, but we made sure we did everything to stop them,” DeGraff said. “That was a fantastic feeling.”
The timing was ideal. One win away from the team’s first sectional championship appearance since 2013, the Marauders defense controlled its team’s playoff fate, and it didn’t deviate from its trademark character.
With a 13-0 lead in the first half, the defense clamped down with 55 tackles, eight for a loss, two interceptions and three sacks. The most telling statistic, however, was on third downs, where Mt. Vernon thrived, stumping Pendleton Heights 0-for-10.
“We’ve been working for that shutout all year,” McCarthy said “We believe we can get another one this week. It’s like what coach preaches. They can’t win if they can’t score. It’s something I value. I know it’s something that Nathan, DeGraff and our other key defensive guys value, too. That’s our focus.”
While the offense led by quarterback Zac Montgomery and running back Eric Jones has grabbed headlines throughout the Marauders’ seven-game winning streak, the defense has been doing what they do best.
Grinding. Punishing. Swarming. Winning.
“No matter how our offense is performing, whether it’s phenomenal or bad, our defense is going to go out and give our offense more chances to score,” McCarthy said. “It’s a just a bunch of different guys on this defense. I can’t describe it really. It’s just the craziest mix, but I think that’s why we all kind of work well together.”
A savvy group, the Marauders have collectively racked up 20 sacks, 12 interceptions and more than 800 total tackles this season. Since the playoffs started, they’ve begrudgingly allowed 14 points through the past two games — 19.5 in 11 games overall.
“Our defense is quick, experienced and kind of sneaky. We’re not the biggest, but we get there and make plays because of our speed,” Armstrong said. “We’re sneaky good because we got three senior linebackers that are key for us.”
Drawing comparison’s to the 2012 sectional championship squad by Armstrong, the parallels are difficult to ignore for the 16-year coaching veteran.
The names Andy Spears, Alex Cheevers and Cody Baker come to mind for the defensive minded guru, who had coaching stints at Cathedral, Roncalli and New Palestine before taking over in Fortville.
The former linebacker trio led the 2012 team with heart, grit and attitude, Armstrong emphasized. McCarthy, Seifert and DeGraff are of the same mold.
“They all have good instincts. They’re all good athletes. They’re good at taking control of our defense and getting us in the right spots,” Armstrong said. “That 2012 team, they wanted to be different and separate themselves. This group is very similar.
“We have three very good linebackers just like that other group, and they are motivated. Being able to be a champion and put your team’s year on the wall is important to them.”
To join the past greats, the Marauders will need to face the past. Coming full circle since their streak began, Mt. Vernon (8-3) plays at Hoosier Heritage Conference rival Delta (7-4) in the title game Friday, which the Marauders beat 20-19 on Sept. 16.
The win eight weeks ago kick started the team’s turnaround this season, and oddly enough is the same program they defeated to win their last sectional title four years ago.
“Obviously you don’t want to lose the streak against the team you started it with. Besides that it’s the sectional championship, too,” Seifert said. “It’s the biggest week of the year. Everybody has to bring their best this week or else what are you even doing here?”
Dropping the hammer won’t be a problem for Seifert or his teammates, who have limited their foes to 14 points or less the past six games.
Seifert leads the Marauders with 123 total tackles, including 79 solos. DeGraff has a team-high 18 tackles for a loss and 108 total takedowns while McCarthy averages 10 tackles a game with 110 overall.
DeGraff is the catalyst of the pass rush with 11 sacks on the year as the Marauders roll out various schemes ranging from the 3-3 stack, the 4-3, and 5-2 front to stymie their foes.
“That’s a key factor in our defense,” DeGraff said. “We also like to be physical, and we can change it up.”
The front line of senior John Hanson, sophomore Max Burhenn, junior Josh Freeman and junior Justice Hill initiate the first wave. The secondary runs six deep with juniors Cole Van Slyke, Robbie Campbell, Damari Gatewood, seniors Alex Barnett, Josh Williams and sophomore Braxton Trittipo.
Gatewood and Van Slyke each have three picks a piece, which could come into play against Delta quarterback Tanner Lambert, who has passed for 1,030 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Lambert has rushed for 834 yards on set plays with 13 touchdowns, and he ran wild in the sectional semifinals against Greenfield-Central last week with three scores while passing for two.
“That’s a key factor. Each week, there’s always a scheme to rush the quarterback and get pressure on them,” DeGraff said. “So far we’ve had some big plays from guys like Hanson, Anderson, Freeman, Justice; they’re just dogs out there.”
In Mt. Vernon’s last meeting with Delta on the road, Lambert passed for a touchdown and rushed for another as the Eagles executed freely on long third down plays. Freshman running back Charlie Spegal piled up 120 yards and a score before the Marauders rallied back to win.
Spegal has gained 1,697 yards rushing and punched in 16 touchdowns on the season, which has the Marauders locked in to clog the lanes.
“They’re not going to run it on us. If they’re going to do anything, they’ll have to pass. That’s the way I look at it,” Seifert said. “It’s the first time we’ve even been able to play in November, so we’re focused. If we go out there and win, it would be huge. It would mean so much to us.
“If we can win and come back here to play for regional, we would remember that for the rest of our lives.”
Another victory would complete their two-part goal as well.
Challenged to win out the last five weeks of the regular season by Armstrong, the Marauders rose to the occasion. Now, they are two-thirds through their three-game sectional goal — with one more to go.
“To be 1-3 to here is a real testament to our kids persistence and belief in themselves,” Armstrong said. “Delta is a pretty good team. It’s going to be tough to go up there and beat them again, but we’re looking forward to the challenge, no doubt.”
Team Stat Comparison
186.2;Rushing Yards Per Game;269.9
173.3;Passing Yards Per Game;93.6
359.5;Total Yards Per Game;363.5
73.5;Tackles Per Game;56.0
1.8;Sacks Per Game;2.3
24.6;Points Per Game;28.4
19.5;Points Allowed Per Game;21.5
Mt. Vernon Defensive Stats Leaders
Nathan Seifert; 123
Cole Van Slyke;82
Tackles for Loss
Cole Van Slyke;6
Cole Van Slyke;2
Cole Van Slyke;3