Red-zone stops help Jersey Shore move to Class AAAA semifinals

MARK NANCE/For the Express Jersey Shore defensive coordinator Alex Jackson talks to the team during a timeout from Friday’s game at Crestwood.

Statistically, Jersey Shore’s defense has played better games. Crestwood gained a season-high 291 yards against the District 4’s top-ranked defense last Friday.

Still, if one wants to know why this defense has been so successful, the Crestwood game might best illustrate it. Specifically, three major sequences highlight what has made this unit, and this team in general, so strong over the past eight seasons.

Three times Crestwood took second-half possessions inside Jersey Shore’s 10-yard line during the Class AAAA state quarterfinal on its home field. Three times, Jersey Shore held the Comets scoreless, twice forcing critical turnovers. One might gain some yards against the Bulldogs, but this team is going to fight like Rocky Balboa to keep it out of the end zone and that was the difference in a 26-14 victory against previously undefeated Crestwood.

Jersey Shore (9-0) is state semifinal-bound for a second consecutive year and plays at District 3 champion Lampeter-Strasburg this Friday night.

“We know in this situation it’s now or never. We just wanted it more. That Bulldog feeling came through,” cornerback Cayden Hess said. “If they make a play, we’re going to make one back. It’s Bulldog tough. We have to keep that mentality.”

Jersey Shore has maintained that mentality over the last eight seasons, winning five district championships and four league titles. Time after time it came shining through against Crestwood. It was not one or two players coming up big, either. This again was a super collective effort with all 11 defenders performing their task and delivering repeated game-changing plays.

When the pressure was highest and the margin for error so slim, the defense showed both how stingy and downright tough it can be.

“Hats off to the defense making all those big plays. Our kids don’t flinch,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “They made some fourth-down plays where they got it by about six inches but they moved forward and made the next plays after that.”

The first stand came on the third-quarter’s opening series when Jersey Shore held a 12-7 advantage. Crestwood moved from its 13-yard line to the Jersey Shore 9 in six quick plays and faced a second-and-goal. The Comets had all the momentum going their way but encountered an orange and black wall.

Shore lineman Colin Samar stoned Kaleb Benjamin in the backfield a play later as Dalton Dugan delivered another big hit and jarred the ball loose. Linebacker Hayden Packer recovered at the 15.

MARK NANCE/For the Express Jersey Shore’s Kooper Peacock intercepts a pass in front of Crestwood receiver Paul Feisel on Friday at Crestwood.

Jersey Shore’s offense kept altering the game’s complexion and a Branden Wheary 42-yard touchdown pass to Owen Anderson capped an 85-yard drive as the Bulldogs went up 19-7. Crestwood, though, came right back and moved inside the 10 on its ensuing series, setting up a first-and-goal at the 11. Following a 2-yard loss, quarterback Noah Schultz ran nine yards to the 2-yard line. Again, the Bulldog defense took over and frustrated Crestwood just as it was on the doorstep.

This time, Packer knifed through the line and smashed Schultz for a 2-yard loss. On fourth-and-goal, Crestwood tried passing for the touchdown, but Jersey Shore denied it as the throw sailed out the back of the end zone. At that point Jersey Shore led by 12. Had the Bulldogs not held both times Crestwood would have either been ahead or tied.

The Comets are an outstanding team which won eight games in a row against a difficult schedule. Jersey Shore understood the Comets would make plays. They also understood only one play mattered.

“(Defensive) Coach (Alex) Jackson said coming into the game if they make a play, forget about it. It’s next-play mentality,” Dugan said after recording 2 1/2 sacks. “We know it’s going to be a great game with two 8-0 teams coming in. The state playoffs are always hard. It’s never a breeze. You have to keep your head up, keep driving and keep working.”

Jersey Shore continued doing that after Crestwood pulled within 19-14 early in the fourth quarter. Kooper Peacock’s interception and 27-yard return set up Cam Allison’s 10-yard touchdown run which made it 26-14. Fittingly, the Bulldogs then dropped the hammer by making a goal-line stand and clinching a second straight Final Four appearance.

Fullback Logan Arnold caught a 41-yard pass and Crestwood had a first-and-goal with 90 seconds remaining. The Comets gave the ball to burly workhorse Jimmy Hawley on the next play, but four white jerseys engulfed him and drove him backward for a 4-yard loss. Peacock sealed the victory a play later, intercepting a pass in the back of the end zone as both players and fans literally jumped for joy.

“Whenever they get a big play, it’s the next-play mentality at Jersey Shore. You don’t worry about the last play, you give all your heart on the next play,” Packer said after making 12 tackles. “Our whole defense, our whole team plays with so much heart. It’s 11 people, one heartbeat.”

This is a defense allowing just 4.9 points and 132.2 yards per game. It has been so good that Crestwood became the first team to score in double figures against it. But forget all that. Jersey Shore made the biggest plays at the biggest times. That is all that mattered Friday night.

Great teams make great plays. This great team focuses on only the next one.

And in a year which has produced four shutouts, the defense’s heartbeat never pounded stronger than it did against Crestwood.

“We said going in Crestwood is going to make some plays, just don’t flinch just keep battling and keep pounding the rock. If we play 180 plays we expect we’re going to make more plays than they do,” Gravish said. “Coach Jackson did a great job, the defensive position coaches did a great job and all the offensive position coaches did a good job as well. Guys made plays when they had to.”


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