By Matt Popchock
Montour (12-2) has the horses to keep pace with District 3 Class AAA champion Bishop McDevitt (12-2), the No. 11 team in the state according to MaxPreps. But perhaps it’s the hogs who deserve much of the credit for the Spartans’ trip to the PIAA Semifinals at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona Friday night.
They are ranked fifth in the Commonwealth by MaxPreps after winning their first WPIAL championship since 1964 and stunning Grove City with a come-from-behind win in last week’s PIAA Quarterfinals. It was their 11th victory since a loss to eventual postseason victim Central Valley that left Montour lost in the Parkway Conference shuffle.
Ever since head coach Lou Cerro responded with some shuffling of his own along the defensive line, his team has played like the preseason favorite it was. This week, whichever one of those linemen draws the assignment against Noah Spence at a given time will become the most important player on the field.
Spence (6’4″, 245 lbs.) soured on Penn State after its sexual abuse scandal, but since the hiring of Urban Meyer, the No. 3 college prospect in America according to CBS Sports’ Tom Lemming has added Ohio State to a list that includes Florida, North Carolina, N.C. State, Maryland, and USC among his top schools.
He has earned Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year honors by registering 85 total tackles for the Crusaders, including 40 solo and 26 for loss, 10.5 sacks, and three blocked punts entering this weekend.
Gateway defeated the PIAA Class AAA runners-up in the Gateway Kickoff Classic back at the start of the season. Spence had nine tackles and a sack in that contest against a competent Quad-A lineup, so not even a matchup against one of the top lines in the state, which averages roughly 270 pounds a man, will intimidate him.
“He’s the fastest defensive lineman I’ve ever seen,” Gateway head coach Terry Smith said after that game. “He’s very explosive, and obviously he’s still got a way to go…he’ll be incredible once he gets to that next level.”
I’ve seen Spence fly to the ball in the time it takes to decipher the No. 9 on the back of his jersey. However, I’ve also seen some consensus on how to contain Bishop McDevitt’s defensive star.
You don’t avoid Spence. You attack him.
“Our gameplan was to go at him, because he’s a reader. If you go away from him, he’ll get you,” Smith said at the time. “He’s got to learn how to come off the ball…right now, he kind of stands up, and reads from [his position].”
Gateway’s Avery Anderson, a fellow D-1 prospect and two-way tackle who opposed Spence much of that night, agreed.
”He was very quick and agile, but he wasn’t very physical. He tried to get off the ball quick, and he tries to get around you,” Anderson said. “If you step outside, he’ll try to get inside. Once I got that down, it wasn’t that hard.”
It takes a team to win a championship, and it’ll take a team effort to provide protection for Dillon Buechel against Spence and the rest of Bishop McDevitt’s defense. The Crusaders are allowing just 12 points per game, and it took an entire half for the Spartans to find their sea legs against Grove City.
This means more is expected of guys like Julian Durden and Aaron Reed. Durden has amassed 1,967 yards on the ground and 25 total touchdowns, though he was bottled up much of last week. He needs to take some of the pressure off Buechel. Reed, Durden’s backup, has been a presence on both sides of the ball lately, and Montour needs a heroic effort from him at his tight end spot.
Tyler Haddock, Matt Christiansen, Dom Martinelli, Chase Dwyer, Cole Macek, and Matt Barone have all contributed up front. Not only must they continue pulling their weight against the onslaught of Spence, they must also watch for linebacker and Maryland recruit Brock Dean, who can get overlooked with all the attention paid to Spence, and top tackler Allen Holman.
But the onus is also on Buechel to be decisive with the ball, and for his receivers to support him. He’s thrown for 2,537 yards and 39 TD’s, with 11 belonging to Devin Wilson and 17 to the ubiquitous Darren Massey.
By that same token, if the Spartans prevail, it’ll be because they got more heat into Alec Werner’s kitchen than the Crusaders did to Buechel. Montour proved in the WPIAL Championship game it can take away the run, but neutralizing Werner is the real key to stopping McDevitt. He’s thrown 27 TD’s against just six INT’s while amassing over 3,000 yards in the air.
Montour probably faces the toughest test of the four WPIAL teams this week. If the Spartans, especially their linemen and senior QB, play with the same fearlessness displayed in last Friday’s thriller, Montour can pass that test.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)