|Austin Troendle picks off one of nine Kohawks takeaways that keyed the first-round win over Monmouth.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
Coe's defense made Saturday feel like a Thursday.
The Kohawks dub every Thursday practice "Turnover Day." Extra practice time is devoted to drills focused on stripping the ball, scooping and scoring, and corralling tipped passes. All of those drills translated in an unbelievable way in Coe's home playoff win over Monmouth.
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Coe ranked sixth in the nation in turnover margin in the regular season, forcing 27 and giving the ball away just ten times. Still, nothing could have foreshadowed the whopping 9-0 turnover differential in the opening-round victory over Monmouth.
Andrew Johnson had two of the Kohawks' five interceptions and Tait Simpson came up with two of Coe's four fumble recoveries. Each takeaway was crucial to the Kohawks' 21-14 win over the Fighting Scots. Monmouth had only turned the ball over nine times all season heading into the playoffs.
"A lot of it is coaching. We spent a lot of time in the classroom last week and had a really good game plan," said Johnson. "We knew the conditions were going to be crazy out there with winds whipping all over the place. We wanted to stop the run first and make them throw the ball into that wind. When that happened, our D-line got a lot of pressure on the quarterback and made it hard for them to throw and we were able to capitalize on it."
The wind played a factor, as did some good fortune. One of Johnson's interceptions was a diving effort on a ball that was deflected off of his teammate's helmet near the line of scrimmage. Coe's defense has been opportunistic all season long, turning some fortuitous bounces into takeaways.
"Turnovers and touchdowns. We want our offense to take care of the ball and our defense to take away the ball, and we want to turn those turnovers into touchdowns," said Johnson. "We know when we're on the field, we've got to do our job and get off the field and get our offense the ball. We know that they've put up points all year, so we've just got to trust them."
There are plenty of reasons to trust the Coe offense, especially running back Trevor Heitland. He leads the nation in rushing yards with 1,870 and needs 174 yards against St. Thomas to wrest the lead in rushing yards per game away from MacMurray's Chazz Middlebrook. The workhorse has rushed for over 200 yards in five different games this season, including a season-high 251 in the win over Monmouth.
He is seven carries away from 300 totes this season. The most important of his 293 carries to date may have been his 46-yard jaunt late in the third quarter which extended the Kohawks' lead to 21-7. It's not just the big plays that make Heitland so valuable. After Monmouth cut the deficit to seven with 6:51 to play in the game, Heitland carried the ball on nine straight plays as Coe ran 4:56 off the clock and forced Monmouth to use its final two timeouts.
Then, Coe's defense rallied for one final stand. It would have been fitting if the game ended with a turnover. Instead, it was a sack by Ryan Leonard that pushed back the Fighting Scots after Tanner Matlick drove his squad to Coe's 25-yard-line. Two plays later, the game was over and the Kohawks advanced, setting a school record with their 11th win of the season.
Coe's defense prides itself on stepping up and making big plays when its back is against the wall. Six of the nine takeaways occurred in Coe territory, including interceptions at the 4-yard-line and in the end zone.
"Our defense has done it week in and week out. They've played exceptionally well. They stiffen up when they get down in the red zone," said head coach Tyler Staker. "They bow their neck a little bit and they play with a spine when teams start knocking on the door. We made plays when we needed to make plays."
"I like to think that we're pretty tough when we get on our side of the field. We pride ourselves on keeping the other team out of the end zone, just coming up with plays whenever we can," added Johnson. "Coach Atwater diagrams the right play calls when we're down in the red zone. We've just got to make it happen when it comes down to it."
Coe's first home playoff win since 2002 happened in front of a raucous crowd that included many alumni. Among them was Kohawks legend and 10-year NFL veteran Fred Jackson, who played on that 2002 team. This has been an impressive journey for a program with a rookie head coach coming off of a sub-.500 season, and it has energized the alumni base as much as it has the current roster.
"It's been an incredible ride. It's pretty surreal, to be quite honest," said Staker. "I felt we had a really good squad coming into this year and felt we were capable of doing some really good things this season. To go 11-0, the most wins in school history for a season, to win the conference title, to do it all in my first year, it's been unbelievable.
"You have to give the credit to the seniors. We've had tremendous leadership all season long. To turn it around from 4-6 to 11-0, you don't do that without great senior leadership."
Now, those seniors get a crack at one of the purple powers. The Kohawks will continue playing their game, focused on stopping the run and creating turnovers. They know that St. Thomas will be a measuring stick, and they are up for the challenge.
"What a great opportunity this is for our guys and our football program to go play one of the best teams in the nation and get a chance to face them in the playoffs," said Staker. "They're excited for this opportunity."
As the Kohawks proved on Saturday, they are nothing if not opportunistic.