WEST PORTSMOUTH — It’s cliche, but over the course of time, the saying “defense wins championships” has proven to be true more often than not.
And in a primo Blue Collar Football League (BCFL) matchup on Saturday evening against the Marion County (Ind.) Crusaders at The Complex in West Portsmouth, the stingy defensive effort that the West Portsmouth Tanks produced on Sunday evening proved to be all the difference.
The Tanks, in a game that had a throwback feel, struck first on a 19-yard touchdown run by Markel Cain and held tight from then on as West Portsmouth took home a 7-6 victory over the BCFL’s No. 1-ranked unit and the No. 6 semipro team nationally by holding Marion County to just 160 yards of total offense in a fantastic defensive battle.
For Jamie Rice, the execution by the defensive unit, which was again led by the expertise of Brian Wroten, was simply gutsy at a time where West Portsmouth needed it most.
“The front seven got pressure, and we were able to cover it up on the back end,” Rice said. “That’s just tough to do against Marion County. If you had told me that we would score seven points and win the game, I would not have believed you. I never thought that we would win scoring seven points. The defense played extraordinary.”
From the first play of the contest, it was clear that Wroten’s unit was going to be at a different level than from its prior five games, where the Tanks had given up 18 points per contest coming into Saturday evening’s matchup. Darion Robinson’s interception ultimately allowed West Portsmouth to take control at its own two yard line, and on the benefit of a Julian Lowe reception, advance into Marion County territory before turning the ball over on downs.
While Robinson’s interception didn’t result in a score because of the turnover on downs, the play effectively helped the Tanks flip field position, and a botched punt attempt on fourth down by the Crusaders on the following series gave the Tanks a short field at the Marion County 19.
Markel Cain, who ran for 64 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries during the contest, wasted no time converting the exceptional field position into points as Cain exploded off tackle, weaved his way through traffic, and took off down the right sideline en route to the 19-yard score. Zack Christensen’s extra point gave the Tanks a 7-0 lead with 8:32 to play in the first quarter.
“Markel is a talent, for sure,” Rice said. “That was a big score for us. It got things started, and when the offense is doing well, the defense picks it up and gets a little swagger going to them. He did well and Duke (Edwards) ran well.”
As the game wore on, the West Portsmouth defense continued to cause major issues for Marion County as the Tanks, led by the play of Robinson, DeyArtis Dudley, and Cedric Legette on the back end along with the ball coverage skills of Chance Freeman forced the Crusaders’ Tanner Day into a subpar passing day.
Overall, Day finished just 11-of-27 through the air for 136 yards as Robinson, Dudley, and Legette knocked 10 passes away while Legette and Freeman made six tackles apiece during the contest. Day did find Terry McKinney for a 29-yard touchdown 58 seconds into the second quarter of play, but was otherwise held in check throughout.
“The defensive backs played extraordinary,” Rice said. “They played really well. Marion County has some really nice receivers, but with the exception of the 29-yard touchdown reception that they had, our defensive backs played lights out. We’ve got a strong crew back there.”
West Portsmouth, however, wasn’t without its own faults. Overall, the Tanks were flagged 17 times for 147 yards on various infractions, including a roughing the kicker call that completely wiped out an exciting 92 yard punt return touchdown by Robinson. The offense committed the vast majority of the remaining infractions as false start and delay of game penalties stymied the Tanks on that end of the gridiron throughout much of the contest.
“Marion County’s a really good defensive team, too,” Rice said. “Still, we had some miscommunications, some mistakes, and some turnovers, and missed opportunities. We’re so close to turning the corner and becoming a really good offensive football team, but we aren’t quite there yet. Now, once it clicks, it’s going to be really fun to watch. But to be a championship team, you have to be smart, too. You can’t just be talented. We’re still lacking a little bit in the former. At times, there’s flashes of this player or that side doing really well, but we’ll slack on the other side and it will mess up a series. In all, we’re a really talented football team that hasn’t played its best football yet.”
Through the adversity, however, the Tanks stood tall.
In one particular instance, West Portsmouth, after forcing a Marion County three-and-out, forced the Crusaders to punt. When the return was botched, which gave the Crusaders life inside the West Portsmouth 10, the Tanks bowed up defensively as Marion County couldn’t get past the two, then missed the field goal attempt with 7:19 remaining in the contest as West Portsmouth maintained the scant 7-6 advantage.
“That’s tough,” Rice said. “When you play a defensive series and force a team to punt, then they get the ball right back inside the 20 on a fumble, that’s tough. A lot of teams will have a letdown there, give that up, and say, ‘Oh, they’re going to score.’ The defense didn’t let up. They held tight, Marion County missed the field goal, and we kept the lead.”
Over the remainder of the contest, the front seven for West Portsmouth took over matters, as the Tanks’ relentless pressure proved to wear down the Marion County offensive line. Dion McKinley finished with one-and-a-half sacks to lead the Tanks, who accumulated seven sacks thanks to McKinley’s efforts, along with a sack each from Duke Edwards, Justin Staggs, Richard Elery, Ben Keaton, and Denzel Cameron.
“Those guys played lights out,” Rice said with extra emphasis in the last two words of his sentence. “That’s just a really good defensive performance. In mine and Brian’s time coaching, that’s a top-three defensive performance that we’ve had against a good team. We’ve held teams to negative yards that weren’t very good teams, but that’s a really good team. That’s a team that we’ll be playing, more than likely, if we can make it to the championship game or farther along in the playoffs. The championship is going to go through them for sure.”
With the victory, West Portsmouth moved to 6-1 overall. The Tanks will take a week off before traveling to play the West Virginia Storm on July 14, where West Portsmouth, who will follow that contest up with a bout against the Kentucky Colonels and the Kings Comets, will
“I keep telling these guys, ‘Our potential is huge,’” Rice said. “The negative is, we’re not close to it. The positive is, we’re not close to it. He we are at 6-1. We still have a ways to go, but this is a good group to coach. They’re young and they’re learning how to win.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT