By Matt Williams
---- — Rabid defensive football teams are sometimes called ball-hawks.
If you were going to substitute a different bird, however, you would have to use the Eagle.
That’s because the St. John’s Prep defense has proven to be one of the most fearsome in Massachusetts in 2012. The Eagles (9-1) jump off the page in every department — points allowed (8.1 per game), yards allowed (207 per game) and turnovers (12 interceptions on the season).
“There’s definitely a personal sense of pride in our work,” said senior end Tucker Mathers. “We’re always going out there looking for the shutout and looking to take the ball away.”
The Prep faces high-powered Andover tonight at Lowell’s Cawley Stadium in the Division 1 Eastern Mass. semifinals. It’s St. John’s eighth postseason appearance under head coach Jim O’Leary, who enters the game with 199 career wins. The Eagles can claim their area-best seventh Super Bowl appearance, sixth under O’Leary, with a win tonight.
It would also be the Eagles’ first Super Bowl since 2010, a loss to Everett that had many of this year’s senior playing prominent roles.
“After that game, an assistant coach pulled the sophomores into a room and told us to remember that taste, and to focus on getting that game,” Mathers said of the 2010 loss. “The majority of us played then and we all remember that taste.”
The key for the Eagles all season has been the defense. It’s a layered, smash mouth unit that thrives on the talent and trust at all three levels — line, linebackers and in the secondary.
It starts up front, where ends Mathers and Anthony Bongiorno and tackles Corey Jean-Jacques and Chris Newton have been tough against the run. As a team, the Prep has only allowed 200 rushing yards once (in a win over Brockton), held opponents under 100 five times and hasn’t allowed 100 rushing yards in six weeks.
“We all know where each other is going to be. We communicate well and that’s important,” said Bongiorno, a 6-foot-4, 233-pound powerhouse from Marblehead. “We have pride across our whole defense, and we pride ourselves on physical play.”
The chemistry between the end-tackle pairings of Bongiorno/Jean-Jacuqes and Newton/Mathers drives the Prep. Both pairs know how to play off their counterparts’ stunts to both stuff the run and pressure the quarterback.
The Eagles held Xaverian to 11 rushing yards on Thanksgiving morning, and Newton, a senior, had arguably his best game of the year.
“Newt’s been a beast. He’s put the team on his back by doing all the grunt work that goes unnoticed, all the fighting in the trenches,” said Mathers, a Boxford native who plans to play both football and lacrosse at Tufts.
“We know each other backwards and forwards. If Chris does a move, I know what to do, and if I’m doing a dodge or something, I know Chris is there in the middle to clean things up.”
Andover (10-1) loves the throw the ball, and QB C.J. Scarpa has 32 touchdown passes on the season against just five interceptions. Contrast that with the St. John’s Prep defense, which has 12 picks of its own and has allowed just five TD passes all year.
The Eagles can rely on supreme athletes like Michael Fawehinmi and Gerald Kahari — “He made an interception against Malden Catholic so athletic I can’t even describe it,” Mathers recalled — in coverage, as well as the dynamic and versatile Alex Moore.
The Prep yields an average of 112 yards per game in the air. They had their toughest game against the pass when St. John’s Shrewsbury threw for 254 yards, but the Eagles had three picks that day and won 49-8.
“They have some really good receivers against our good cover guys, so that should be interesting,” said Mathers. “They’re a hurry-up team and we’ve been doing a lot of conditioning to prepare for it.”
The Eagles’ linebackers can’t be overlooked, with Lucas Bavaro, Sean Smerczynski and R.J. Pizzano patrolling the middle making plays. The Prep’s ability to hand off responsibilities across all three levels have made them arguably the state’s best D.
“It’s huge. We can rely on our secondary to give us time to rush, we know they’ll bail us out if we don’t get to the QB and we know if we occupy a block our linebackers will be there,” said Bongiorno. “If we didn’t trust each other it wouldn’t be the same defense.”
The Eagles start fast as a defense, having allowed only 21 points in the first half all season. Nearly half of the 81 points they’ve allowed on the season have come in the fourth quarter — many of those with the game’s outcome secure.
Tonight, against what is statistically the best offense they’ve faced, the Eagles’ defensive plan won’t change. They want to pressure the QB, taking away time, space and comfort.
“Our goal every week is to hit the quarterback and that definitely applies this week,” said Bongiorno, who has made a living in opposing backfields this fall and hopes to play college football next year.
It starts up front. If Bongiorno, Jean-Jacques, Newton and Mathers can push into Andover’s backfield with regularity, the Eagles will be in great shape.
“We want to make them uncomfortable,” Mathers added. “We want to force them to make quick decisions, so any of our defensive backs and linebackers can make some plays.”