DADE CITY — As Pasco romped through the regular season in last year’s drive to the Class 5A state semifinals, the Pirates’ record-setting offense overshadowed one of Tampa Bay’s best defenses.
And as the Pirates (6-0, 4-0) head into Friday’s Class 5A, District 6 battle at Fivay (5-1, 4-0) with first place at stake, Pasco’s D cannot be overlooked.
The Pirates have allowed only seven points. Not only is that the lowest total in the state, but only three teams in the country — Prince Tech (Conn.), Nottingham (N.J.) and Rye Neck (N.Y.) — have given up fewer than seven points, according to MaxPreps.
“We’ve definitely progressed from last year…” senior defensive lineman Joey Ivie said. “We’re not better yet.”
Some of the statistics disagree.
Through six games last year, Pasco shut out three opponents and allowed only 45 points in its perfect start. This fall, the Pirates have five shutouts and allowed only one touchdown.
But, Pasco players point out, that lone score comes with caveats. A backup Pirates quarterback threw an interception on his half of the field with his team up 35-0, leaving Land O’Lakes only 38 yards from the end zone. And when Gators quarterback Ethan Weilant ran for a 7-yard score in the third quarter, he punctured a second-string defense.
“When I talk about it, I say the starting defense has (allowed) zero points,” senior defensive end Morgan Flournory said.
The Pirates have given up only 547 yards, and only Land O’Lakes and Wesley Chapel have gained more than 100 yards in a game. Opponents average only 2.6 yards per play against the Pirates — including 1.7 yards per rush.
Pasco’s 21 sacks match the team total through six games last year. And though the Pirates have eight fewer fumble recoveries, they have tallied one more interception (seven).
“I don’t think it’s a surprise,” Pasco coach Tom McHugh said. “I think it’s the way they are going to the ball and playing together.”
The Pirates have meshed after losing some of their top players from last year’s unit. Pasco had five of the 11 first-team all-Sunshine Athletic Conference defenders last fall. Three of them graduated, and a fourth, athlete Janarion Grant, has been sidelined with injuries for his senior season and isn’t expected to play tonight.
But the defense’s remaining all-SAC player — Ivie — has been one of the biggest reasons for Pasco’s all-state defense.
“When you have a dominant defensive lineman like that, he can change a game,” said Anclote coach Matt Wicks, whose team mustered only 88 yards in last month’s 34-0 loss.
Ivie has added 25 pounds to his 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame since last fall, turning him from a strong player into one of Tampa Bay’s top prospects.
The four-star Florida commit has played well individually, racking up four sacks and a team-high 46 tackles, but he’s made an impact in other ways. Opponents must know where he is on every play. Wiregrass Ranch barked out “Florida!” to point him out to blockers.
By drawing regular double teams, he’s given opportunities to teammates like Flournory, who ranks 10th in the state with nine sacks.
“I give most of my sacks to him,” Flournory said. “He takes two or three blockers, it leads to one or two of us free.”
And those free Pirates have capitalized.
Sophomore linebacker Brandon Debyah has recorded 42 tackles, while junior linebacker J.D. Edwards has 37 and two interceptions.
Without Grant, a three-star recruit, in the secondary, Damien Wilson and Malik Johns have emerged as lockdown cornerbacks, breaking up five passes — 7 percent of opponents’ total attempts.
“A lot of players just stepped up,” Ivie said.
Pasco has other reasons for its defensive dominance. Fewer players have to start both ways, so they’re fresher. The bench is deeper, too, and a slightly smaller lineup is much quicker.
“Speed everywhere,” said Anclote running back Kishaun Dampier, who was held to 1 yard against the Pirates.
The biggest reason for the defense’s success, Flournory said, is pride. After graduating three stars, Pasco heard doubts about whether it could continue to dominate the North Suncoast and make another deep playoff run.
“I think we have more pride playing this year,” Flournory said. “We’re just playing to prove to everybody that we can hang with everybody else.”
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.