LITHIA — It's hard to definitively pinpoint just one play when a team wins big, but if there was a turning point in Newsome's 52-7 thumping of Gaither in last Friday's region quarterfinal, defensive back Ricardo Rodriguez provided it.
Following an eight-play, 80-yard Newsome touchdown drive to open the game, host Gaither took possession and on its fourth play from scrimmage, Cowboys' quarterback Alex McGeough dropped back and got pressure from the left. McGeough turned right and fired, but Rodriguez jumped the route and took it back 40 yards for a 14-0 Wolves lead.
Momentum turned. Crowd out of the game. And a noticeable downturn in the Gaither players' body language.
"I just read the quarterback and tried to make a play," Rodriguez said. "It was a big momentum swing for us. It's tough to go down 14-0 in the playoffs."
And while Newsome's offense was busy rolling up 532 yards of offense, the defense was stifling Gaither's attack. Newsome held the Cowboys to 138 total yards and only allowed Gaither on its side of the field twice.
"Right now we are playing total team defense," Newsome coach Ken Hiscock said. "And that's been the difference."
The Wolves will need another big effort from the defense tonight when they try to do something no team has done all season — knock off unbeaten Durant. The Cougars beat Newsome 38-28 Oct. 18.
"We beat ourselves the first time," Rodriguez said. "We outgained them in yards but turned the ball over too many times."
But this isn't a unit that has been clicking all season. Early on in the year Newsome's defense was uneven at best, surrendering at least 34 points in three straight losses to open the season.
"We were playing selfish," defensive lineman Jacques Braggs said. "And worrying more about our stats than executing the game plan."
But something started coming together for the D around the Wolves 42-6 win against Riverview Oct. 26 And from that point on, Newsome hasn't surrendered more than seven points in a stretch spanning four games.
"And from then," Braggs said, "everything started falling into place."
The Wolves pass defense, led by Ramsey Bennett, Darius McGrew, Aaron Wade and Rodriguez, was outstanding against Gaither, holding McGeough to 4-of-18 for just 38 yards passing and recording a pair of interceptions.
"You could see the confidence in the secondary's eyes," Braggs said. "They stepped it up."
Newsome also does something few high schools can — rotate a number of defensive lineman to keep them fresh.
"We have big packages and speed packages," Hiscock said. "We don't lose anything with either. The defensive line has been very impressive."
Hiscock also pointed to something behind the scenes that isn't as easily noticeable on Friday night.
"You have to give credit to the scout team for getting (the defense) prepared Monday through Thursday," he said. "And our assistant coaches have been coming up with great schemes to get the players in the right spot and give them a jump on the ball."
Newsome's recent defensive surge — combined with an offense that has scored at least 40 points in each of the last four games — has the Wolves believing things will be different this time around against Durant.
"I expect a hard-nosed game of football," Braggs said. "The team that makes the least mistakes will probably win. It should be a great chess match."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]