DADE CITY — As Pasco’s offensive weapons roll to one of the best seasons in county history, they’re overshadowing something else.
The Pirates’ defense might be as good.
Pasco (9-0, 6-0) has allowed a North Suncoast-best 51 points all season heading into tonight’s 9-mile rivalry game with Zephyrhills (5-3, 5-1). Only nationally ranked Armwood (46 points) has given up fewer points in the bay area.
“We play mean,” defensive end Nick Wilson said.
Pasco had high expectations for its defense this fall. It recorded two shutouts and held opponents to two or fewer touchdowns in nine games last season.
But a preseason matchup against a much larger Hernando team with a stable full of bruising rushers made the Pirates realize how much more they needed to improve — even though they shut out the future 6A-6 district champion Leopards.
“We honestly thought we were better than we were,” Wilson said. “Then the Hernando game — nuh-uh.”
Pasco became more physical and began to dominate up front. Those improvements — and an offense that’s scored 50 points in seven consecutive games — have the Pirates one win from a second undefeated regular season in a row and the Class 5A, District 6 championship.
Linebacker Aryn Strickland said Pasco’s coaches have prepared them well for each game and given them simple instructions: Plug your gap, stay in your lane and trust teammates to do the same.
“We all trust each other,” said Strickland, who leads the team with 62 tackles. “We let us play our own positions. We don’t overlook our positions. Everyone has a cutback. Everyone has their responsibilities, and they stay with their responsibilities.”
Sometimes those responsibilities overlap.
Two of the defense’s biggest playmakers are offensive stars. Defensive backs Trey Dudley-Giles and Janarion Grant are among the team’s two-way starters, joining sophomore Lane Stancil and junior Damien Wilson on a secondary that has more than twice as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes allowed (four).
“I think they’ve been doing a good job stopping the run or the pass,” Pasco coach Tom McHugh said.
Two lockdown defensive backs and Division I-A prospects gives the Pirates’ defense plenty of options. It can stack the defensive front to prevent the run or attack the quarterback, knowing few receivers will be able to get open on the outside.
That freedom has helped the defensive line dominate behind Wilson (40 tackles) and tackles Joey Ivie (seven sacks, 40 tackles) and John Baxter (two sacks, 21 tackles). Pasco is averaging three sacks per game and has forced 24 turnovers.
The Pirates have rolled to five shutouts in their past seven games. They haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher yet and contained Fivay’s Kyrie Rodriguez (third in the county at 109 yards per game) to only 60 yards on 16 carries in a 59-6 blowout victory.
But Zephyrhills will pose one of the biggest tests to Pasco’s defense all season. Bulldogs quarterback Jamal Roberts has rushed for almost 1,200 yards and thrown for five touchdowns.
To contain one of the county’s quickest players, expect the Pirates to do the same thing they’ve done all year: Focus on their assignments and trust teammates to do the same.
“We’ve got people that are fast, too,” Strickland said. “Everyone has to do their responsibilities.”
Memorable 9-mile rivalry games
Tonight’s Zephyrhills-Pasco showdown could give the Pirates the district title and keep Zephyrhills out of the playoffs — or force a three-way tie for the two postseason berths. Here are three recent 9-mile rivalry games with similarly high stakes:
1996: Morgan Evans’ 77-yard touchdown rush tied the score with 3:37 left for Pasco. Jeremy Gude’s 30-yard field goal with nine seconds left gave the Pirates a 24-21 victory — and secured the runnerup spot in the district.
2001: Zephyrhills rallied from a 20-point halftime deficit to earn a 34-27 road win. Bulldogs quarterback James Adamo hit Justin Whitworth on the winning 59-yard touchdown with 50 seconds left. Zephyrhills’ victory secured the runnerup spot in the district and all but knocked Pasco out of the playoffs.
2002: Pasco entered 5-3 and needed a victory over 7-1 Zephyrhills to force a three-way tie and get into the playoffs. But James Adamo and Justin Cobb led the Bulldogs to a 26-8 victory. The Pirates still squeaked into the playoffs with an at-large bid.
Staff writer John C. Cotey contributed to this report.