If the first half of the season is any indication, then the Hilliard Darby High School football team will have a difficult time maintaining its scoring average when it plays host to Worthington Kilbourne in an OCC-Cardinal Division game Friday, Sept. 28.
The Panthers, who are 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the OCC-Cardinal, are averaging 41.8 points per contest, but the Wolves are allowing 19.4.
"I think our defense has played very well all season," said coach Vince Trombetti, whose team fell to 1-4 overall and 0-2 in the OCC-Cardinal with a 29-17 loss to Westerville Central on Sept. 22. "Our offense has made several turnovers deep in our end and the defense has done good even with their backs to the wall a lot."
In addition to turnovers, special teams coverage also has put the Wolves' defense in a bad spot at times. Central scored the clinching touchdown with 1 minute, 6 seconds remaining against Kilbourne's offense, as defensive back Jared Drake returned an interception 40 yards for the score.
Junior middle linebacker Josh Happ has led the Wolves' defense. Trombetti said Happ caught his attention two years ago as a freshman.
"We played Thomas (Worthington) at home that season and Happ was covering a punt for us," Trombetti said. "He really put a hit on the punt returner. I mean, he hit him so hard you probably could've heard it back over at Thomas. It made me say 'wow,' that's for sure."
Happ has 62 tackles on the season, including 2 1/2 sacks and three tackles for loss. He also has blocked two punts and recovered a fumble.
"He's our best run-stopper and our leading tackler," Trombetti said. "He's all over the field. He's got a nose for the ball and just has the perfect linebacker mentality. You know how good he is? Our second-leading tackler (junior linebacker Taylor Wilson) has 41 tackles."
Happ is 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, but Trombetti said his size has never been an issue.
"We've had a history of having small but tough linebackers here," he said. "We've had a few bigger ones, but generally Josh Happ is the type of kid we've had in that position. He's hard-nosed with good technique. He runs downhill to the line of scrimmage, not just laterally where he makes the tackle five yards later. He has really improved at that."
The Wolves also have gotten strong play from defensive linemen Izzy Benzegala, Gavin Elifritz and D.J. Freer.
"I think those guys have done a great job keeping the offensive linemen off our linebackers so they can get to the ball and make plays," Trombetti said. "They're doing their jobs."
Four of the Wolves' top five players on defense are juniors, meaning they should have more experience next season.
Benzegala, the lone senior in the group of aforementioned defensive standouts, has 18 tackles, two sacks and 2 1/2 tackles for loss. Elifritz has 4 1/2 sacks and five tackles for loss, and Freer has 21 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and 2 1/2 tackles for loss.
Trombetti said his team's defense has kept it in games.
"Part of our frustration is that we've been in every game, unlike last year, but we have had trouble closing the door," he said. "Last year we were out of the games, if not by the second quarter, then by the third quarter. We're 1-4, but we've had a chance to win them all in the fourth quarter. Even in the (28-7 loss to Westerville South on Sept. 14), it was 21-7 in the fourth quarter, so we were still in it."
The Wolves will need to put forth the same kind of defensive effort against Darby's spread offense as they had against South, which is averaging 40.2 points per game.
Darby is led by running back Hayden VanKirk, slotback Caleb Day and quarterback Chase Longwell. Day had six catches for 82 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown, in a 20-7 win over Dublin Jerome on Sept. 22.
The Panthers limited Jerome to 130 total yards, including just 48 in the second half.
"They're a typical Darby team, physical with athletes," Trombetti said. "It'll be another sleepless week preparing for them, but the most important thing we have to do is correct the mistakes that we can control.
"We have been hurt by some big plays and not responded. It's like being in a boxing match. They're throwing haymakers at us and we're covering up rather than countering with our haymakers. We need to make some big plays and limit their big plays."