Four weeks into the 2014 football season, Dutch Fork had questions to which it didn’t know the answers. The defending Class 4A, Division I state champions had a .500 team and were allowing yards and points at an alarming rate.
In the second week of the season, Dutch Fork played Allen, Texas, and allowed 58 points and 636 yards to a nationally ranked squad. Two weeks later, it was 487 yards to Dorman in a 48-37 loss that seemed to turn the tide.
On the bus ride home after that September loss, the senior leaders of the Silver Foxes decided they had seen enough. Schemes and players didn’t change, but effort, focus and results did.
Behind a rejuvenated defense, Dutch Fork has won nine in a row and will play host to Byrnes on Friday night with a spot in the title game on the line.
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“Those two games were a slap in the face really,” senior safety and leading tackler Lane Ecton said. “Those two games we lost made us realize that we needed to turn things around, and turn them around quickly, if we were going to be successful again.”
The defensive resurgence is similar to what Dutch Fork did last season in winning its first state championship. That turnaround culminated in limiting Sumter to 15 yards of offense in a 54-14 trouncing in the state title contest.
In the first four weeks of this season, the Silver Foxes allowed 37.25 points and 423 yards per game. In the past nine games, those numbers have diminished to 8.4 points and 211.8 yards per game.
Of the 76 points they’ve allowed over those nine games, 36 came in mop-up time when the outcome was decided.
Linebacker Mick Lusk, who is third on the team with 52 tackles, said the struggles early in the year made this group more focused.
“We played a really tough schedule, and I don’t think we were on point as a defense as we are now. We’re more focused and we’re ready to play now and those early games helped us,” Lusk said. “Our pass rush is a lot better, and when you get pressure on the quarterback, that makes everything seem easier. Everyone is doing their job now and trusting in each other. We might not have had that in the first few games. Our defense is right where we were last year.”
The biggest improvement might have come in the defensive front. Dutch Fork had several experienced guys who played key roles last year but struggled to find their fit this season.
Dominique Scott is a North-South All-Star game selection from his defensive end spot. Andrew Dunlap, David Tillman, Rory Gallman and two-way player Malik Sumter form a talented, versatile nucleus up front.
It just took time to figure out which players fit together best.
“It takes a while to know who is going to do what,” Dutch Fork coach Tom Knotts said. “You look at players on paper and you think one thing, but what you see in action is a little bit different. We were able to move our D-line around. We have some versatile defensive ends that we can move inside and give us a decent pass-rushing group. We have some smaller defensive tackles we can play, and then we have a few bigger ones we can put in there when we think they’re going to rush it.”
The defense’s resurgence has changed the mindset of Knotts. A risk-taker his entire 37-year coaching career, Knotts went for it on fourth down more times than not when his offense was in the red zone.
But now he has a weapon at kicker in Tyler Bass, who is 17-of-19 on field goal attempts this season. So, Knotts doesn’t hesitate to take the three points and let is defense do its job.
“I don’t mind kicking a field goal to go up 3-0,” Knotts said. “Any time we can put points on the board, I feel pretty good about what our defense is doing. That, in turn, allows us to be more ball-control on offense. We can look for the long ball when want to.”