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Gorches: Merrillville defense can’t come up with big play

Merrillville quarterback Jake Raspopovich pushes for first down fourth down second quarter against Ft. Wayne Snider Wayne High School Ft.

Merrillville quarterback Jake Raspopovich pushes for the first down on fourth down in the second quarter against Ft. Wayne Snider at Wayne High School in Ft. Wayne Friday night. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 19, 2012 1:38PM



FORT WAYNE — With an offense like Merrillville’s, all the defense needs to do is enough to win. Sometimes it’s just one play somewhere … anywhere.

And that rang true again on Friday night in the Class 5A semistate against Fort Wayne Snider.

Maybe the difference maker was that 1-yard run on fourth down and just three feet (that’s one yard for the math-challenged) at Snider’s own 35 when running back Tyrell Swain stumbled, but still fell forward to gain four feet with 3:54 left in the first quarter. Eleven plays later Snider scored a touchdown for a 12-point lead.

Maybe it was the drive before when personal foul penalties on back-to-back plays — a horse collar tackle on the kickoff return and a facemask to add onto a 25-yard run basically handed Snider its second TD of the night.

Thinking back to drives in the first 15 minutes of the game may seem fruitless — after all, you have almost three quarters to rebound. But when the players wearing purple and white look up at the scoreboard at the end and the final score is 42-39 Fort Wayne Snider, how can you not think back to those plays?

“We didn’t play great in all phases of the game, but you can’t find anyone who didn’t give it their all out there tonight,” Merrillville coach Zac Wells said.

Once again, the offensive phase of the game couldn’t be faulted much by Pirates fans. They scored just under their season average of 40 points per game. But the weak part of Merrillville this season — if you can call anything about an 11-3 campaign that resulted in a regional title weak — was the defense.

What do the old-school football geniuses say about the game: Offense wins games but defense wins championships?

It’s not so old school after all. Just ask the NFL’s New England Patriots and their prolific offense about losing twice in the Super Bowl to the defensive-oriented New York Giants.

Just ask the Green Bay Packers about going 15-1 last season with a record-setting offense, but not being able to stop anybody on defense, including those Giants.

Merrillville reminded some people of last year’s Packers. It seemed like Jake Raspopovich, Aaron Dye, Dylon Collins and company could put up points at will. In Friday’s game it wasn’t quite that way, but you just wonder if making just one play somewhere on defense.

Or special teams for that matter since the Pirates had a golden opportunity midway through the third quarter to recover an onside kick. The ball slipped through the hands of two different Merrillville players and went out of bounds. It was 35-26 Snider at the time. The Panthers scored on that drive for their final points.

To give Merrillville’s defense credit, it played much better in the second half, which was a microcosm of the season. The Pirates gave up just enough points most weeks to make the games close — like beating Valparaiso 66-41 or Michigan City 62-41 or Portage 42-38. Not exactly bringing back memories of the old Purple People Eaters of the 1970s.

“We didn’t cover a couple (pass) routes early really well, but (Snider) made some good catches,” Wells said. “We never threatened them (on defense) in the first half to make them one dimensional.”

Wells defended his team’s defensive effort in the postseason, and he’s right. The Pirates gave up 21 points in three of the victories and 14 in the sectional final win over Crown Point.

”We’ve had four weeks of pretty good defense,” Wells said. “Tonight we just didn’t perform well in the first half.”

Don’t get me wrong — I love offense. Going against old school, I would rather watch games in which 100 points combined are scored instead of your average 10-7 grinder.

Heck, I wish we could see Raspopovich play quarterback in college with his more than 4,000 yards combined passing and rushing instead of him playing basketball.

Just one play somewhere … anywhere … and we could have watched Raspo play one more game at QB. You can’t always get what you want.



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