Prep football: 3AA playoffs second round

Rams’ backbone resides up front

CorrespondentNovember 18, 2013 

Running against Cleveland’s defensive line with standout junior Sterling Johnson (90) is often a tough proposition for Ram opponents.

CHRIS RODIER — CHRIS RODIER

  • 3AA Playoffs Hillsborough Orange (11-1) at Cleveland (9-3)

    7:30 p.m. Friday

    Need to Know: Orange comes out of the Big Eight 3A Conference which featured three eight-win teams in the regular season: Orange, Cardinal Gibbons and Southern Durham. Orange beat Gibbons (which thrashed Triton 44-28 in the first round of the playoffs), 49-28, but lost to Southern, 55-41 in its regular-season finale. The Panthers’ most puzzling result was a 6-0 win over a four-win Chapel Hill team that came on basically a Hail Mary TD pass at the end of the game.

    Cleveland’s defense will need to continue its late-season surge on Friday. The Rams are giving up just 16.8 points a game in its last six games. Orange averages 41.2 points a game and has hit the 30-point mark in each of its last four games.

    Defensively, the Panthers have held seven opponents to a touchdown or less, included in that number is five shutouts.

    Best win: Orange, 49-28 over Cardinal Gibbons on Nov. 1; Cleveland, 45-44 over Garner on Aug. 30

    The winner meets: Cardinal Gibbons (9-3) or Southern Durham (10-2)

    D. Clay Best

— The heart and soul of the Cleveland football team this season has been found in the two-pronged attack of junior quarterback Aaron Farmer and senior running back Isaac Martin. And with the duo accounting for more than 4,300 yards and 50 touchdowns between them, it’s easy to see why the accolades tend to follow their performances.

But the success of the Rams this season, as says head coach Marc Morris, hinges in an area of the field where the numbers on the jerseys are sometimes difficult to distinguish but the impact of those players is, without question, of vital importance.

After suffering losses early in the season in which Cleveland surrendered points of 63, 53 and 49 points to opponents, the Rams’ defense has shown vast improvement down the stretch, starting with the defensive line.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys,” Morris said of his starting defensive line unit of Dylan Caldwell, Sterling Johnson, Chris Lee and Bryer Rogers. “We feel like that is the backbone of our whole team to be honest with you.”

That backbone was needed in Cleveland’s 33-13 first round win over a physical Hope Mills Gray’s Creek team who attempted to win the battle in the trenches with a relentless running attack. This week, the Rams’ front four will have to try to slow down the offensive attack of Hillsborough Orange led by quarterback Garrett Cloer and running back Patrick Pettiford.

Twice in the first round game, Gray’s Creek threatened to cut into Cleveland’s double digit lead in getting the ball inside the Rams’ 10-yard line only to come away with no points after a missed field goal in the first quarter and a momentum-shifting turnover on downs in the second half.

After earning first-and-goal at the eight yard line, Gray’s Creek ran the ball on four consecutive plays and managed just seven yards as the interior of Cleveland’s defense surged and pushed back the Bears’ offensive line and denied by a foot Don McNeill the touchdown that would have cut the Rams’ lead in half on fourth-and-goal from the two.

Caldwell recovered a fumble in the opening round win, Johnson earned a key sack and Lee and Rogers helped to win the battle up front with big stops all night long.

The Rams have surrendered just 41 points combined in their last three games, a far cry from the offensive outbursts given up at the beginning of the season, and the defense has been instrumental in Cleveland’s six-game winning streak.

“The better they play, the better our defense plays and they know that,” Morris added. “When they play well, we end up playing pretty good.

“It’s something that we’re going to need to continue to do.”

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