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Wizards worked magic defensively with speed, open-field tackling en route to Division II Super Bowl

December 9, 2013

Cumberland's Michael Stock (20), right, watches as Cumberland junior quarterback Tyler Calabro is sacked by West Warwick defender Mouhamadou Gassama late in the fourth quarter of Division II Super Bowl at Cranston Stadium Sunday. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN

CRANSTON – The expression goes, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

In all honesty, there was very little reason for West Warwick to stray from the defensive scheme that had proven most successful in the Wizards’ 14-0 regular-season victory over Cumberland. The blueprint on how to contain and/or slow down Tyler Calabro, Chris Hayes, Joe Fine, Mike Stock and the rest of the Clippers’ offense had been established, hence why Wizards defensive coordinator Chris Craik likely didn’t have to endure too many restless nights leading up to Sunday’s Division II Super Bowl contest at Cranston Stadium.

“We didn’t do a lot different on defense than we did the last time because we shut them out the last time,” stated Craik, his architecture coming to life in West Warwick’s 48-13 throttling of Cumberland. “You stick with what works.”

Added Cumberland mentor Chris Skurka, “They were the better football team here today. Any time they come out and execute a game plan like that, you don’t have a chance.”

Each Super Bowl finalist went on to play three games after getting together at Tucker Field in early November. Cumberland was able to turn the page and move past the goose egg it laid against West Warwick, posting a single-game total of 42 points on two occasions, both of which transpired in the playoffs.

Conversely, West Warwick’s defensive corps kept on humming along after securing the top seed in Division II-B. Between the quarterfinals and semifinals, the Wizards allowed a grand total of 13 points.

With that as the backdrop, Sunday’s Division II football finale could have been billed as a matchup of an irresistible force going up against an immovable object. Were the sounds of that emanated from Cumberland’s sideline during the first rodeo with West Warwick merely the exception rather than the rule, or did the Wizards truly have the personnel and wits to ground the Clippers?

In many ways, the first meeting the Wizards and Clippers staged proved a harbinger of what was to come with a title at stake. West Warwick came up with seven takeaways that Friday night in November. In Sunday’s rematch, Cumberland was guilty of six turnovers – four interceptions and two lost fumbles.

Like solving a Rubik’s Cube, the Wizards knew how to confront the Clippers from all angles and sides. Though he was sacked just once, Calabro seemed to spend much of the afternoon looking to escape the clutches of the wave of West Warwick defenders that came crashing the quarterback’s way.

“Just a tremendous amount,” said Skurka when asked the degree of pressure he felt Calabro faced.

In the first contest against the Wizards, Calabro ran for 108 yards on 14 carries. He found the sledding a bit tougher Sunday as West Warwick did a much better job of limiting his explosiveness (12 attempts for 76 yards). Mind you 59 of those yards came on one gallop as Calabro helped set the stage for the Clippers’ first score, a one-yard plunge by Stock that came after the Wizards had built a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.

“(Calabro) ran quite a bit in that first meeting, so we made some adjustments for the second time around,” said Craik.

The aforementioned 59-yard scamper by Calabro was Cumberland’s longest play from scrimmage. That it didn’t end up producing six points helps to shed light on the “bend, but don’t break” defense that West Warwick displayed at times.

With the Clippers trailing 14-6 late in the first half, Fine bounced free for a 36-yard gain that enabled Cumberland to cross midfield and deep into West Warwick territory. A similar situation arose in the third quarter as Fine appeared well on his way to streaking into the open field. He ended up mustering “only” a 24-yard gain.

In each instance, West Warwick’s speed and ability to make open-field tackles that could also be viewed through the lens of touchdown saving was on full display. Cumberland ended up producing 206 ground yards on 27 attempts, a high sum that would have been even higher if not for the Wizards and their penchant for limiting the destruction.

“We knew that they were a big, physical team up-front and that we had to stop the run. We wanted to put our fastest guys on the field and let them make it happen,” noted Craik. “Fine is a big kid, so you’ve got to tackle him.”

Stated Calabro, “West Warwick’s a team that’s going to come after you, but we just didn’t execute. We had opportunities.”

Corralling Calabro and the Clippers’ receiving corps was also instrumental in West Warwick putting its collective defensive foot down. Calabro completed 11-of-26 passes for 132 yards and one touchdown, yet he was picked off four times.

The Wizards’ pass-defense strategy was simple enough. Everything was 1-on-1 across the board, which in turn seemed to play right into the hands of cornerback Austin Paygai. His specialty was jumping routes as the speedy West Warwick senior came away with three interceptions, one that was returned 70 yards as the final horn sounded.

“(Calabro) was targeting No. 10 (Hayes) a lot and we saw his eyes where he was throwing the ball,” Paygai pointed out. “They (the Cumberland receivers) weren’t really physical with us to get us out of the way, so we just kind of jumped the routes and came away with the interceptions.”

If you thought Sunday’s game had that “déjà vu” vibe to it, you are not alone.

“They made a few adjustments, but everything was pretty much the same,” said Calabro when asked if there was anything from the West Warwick outfit that got Cumberland last month to the one that once again flexed its defensive muscles en route to copping the Super Bowl.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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