A Lackawanna coach walked up to Cleveland Hill’s Steven MacIllwain and asked him simply, “Why were you sacking my quarterback so much?”
And if MacIllwain and his Golden Eagles teammates weren’t hovering around the quarterback, they were intercepting passes. Or knocking them down. Or recovering fumbles. Or hindering the Steelers in some other way, shape or form.
Cleveland Hill, the area’s No. 4 ranked small school and the defending Section VI Class C champion, put on a defensive clinic on Friday night at Lackawanna and downed the Steelers, 22-8, to remain undefeated at 4-0.
“We watch film so much and it’s all coaching, really,” Cleveland Hill defensive back Jared Watkins said. “We just go out and perform because we hit hard, that’s all we preach in practice. We hit clean and hard. CH football, ya know?”
Yes, you made your point. Defense has carried Cleveland Hill all season and Friday was one of those nights where offense was hard to come by for both teams. Watkins dropped a sure touchdown, a sure interception and fumbled a kickoff but redeemed himself with two interceptions including a pick-six that was returned 20 yards in the second quarter that set the game’s tone.
The Eagles also moved the chains along with punishing tailback Brandon Thomas, who rolled to 153 yards and a touchdown. But it was the defense that played consistently from start to finish.
“We’ve been playing well defensively so far this year and we knew we were going against a team with a lot of offensive weapons so we were really happy with to see how we played,” Cleveland Hill coach Glen Graham said.
Graham wanted to make sure his linebackers were in their proper fits and the defensive line to get up field and contain Cameron Smith, Lackawanna’s top playmaker.
“Cameron Smith is a very good football player and we needed to keep him contained and not give up any big plays,” Graham said. “Then hopefully we could make them beat us in a way that’s a little different than they wanted to.”
The defensive tone was established early. Lackawanna’s Marcus Webb recovered a fumble off a punt return by Watkins at the Cleveland Hill 5 early in the first quarter. But on fourth down Thomas lined up wide and came off the edge quickly from Dylan Gregoire’s blind side for the sack.
Then there were potential scoring drives that didn’t pan out because of self destruction, like when Cleveland Hill reached first-and-goal from the 9. The first play was an illegal shift good for a 5-yard penalty then Thomas was tripped up by Webb after a short gain. Thomas rushed off tackle and was greeted by Michael Hall for no gain. Aaron Jackson rolled to his right on third down and Watkins was wide open in the end zone – so wide open he dropped the pass.
“I just took my eyes off of it for a split second and it touched my tips,” Watkins said. “But I got it right back with the pick.”
Indeed, Cleveland Hill got on the board first in the second quarter when Watkins returned an interception back 20-yards for a touchdown.
Lackawanna finally scored in the third on a 9-yard touchdown reception by Damone Sylvers. But a fumble by Lackawanna at the end of the third quarter set up a 1-yard touchdown run by fullback Josh White.
Thomas put the game out of reach with 8:09 left in the game on a 2-yard touchdown run.
“I just learned there’s a lot of preparation and dedication that we have to do,” said MacIllwain, who finished with two sacks. “We knew it was going to be a competitive team and we just had to keep digging deep and play like Eagles. That was our test.”
Said Watkins: “I swear, we have the best D.”