THE DEFENSE RESTS
Cards defensive unit makes statement with win over Cheltenham
WYNCOTE >> Upper Dublin’s season will depend on its defense.
A week after, in the words of coach Bret Stover, being “humbled” in a loss at Penn Charter, the Cardinals defense knew it had a tall task at hand Friday against Cheltenham. The Panthers opened a lot of people’s eyes by besting Quakertown on the road last week, so with an undefeated SOL American record on the line, both teams were pumped up.
It wasn’t the prettiest game, but the UD defense was up to the task and the Cardinals scrapped out a 20-7 win over the Panthers on Friday night.
“We just had a bad taste in our mouths from last week,” UD linebacker Logan Heim, who had seven tackles, said. “We wanted to avenge ourselves and we did. We got at it tonight.”
Upper Dublin dropped an interception on the first play of the game, but it was of little consequence as Selvin Haynes picked off the second pass of the game. Haynes, a senior corner, also recovered a fumble later in the game and along with fellow corner Michah Bootman, anchored a strong effort by the secondary.
The early turnover would become a theme for Cheltenham all night. Certainly, a wet and muddy field didn’t do either team many favors, but Panthers coach Ryan Nase knew his team’s struggles started with its turnovers.
“We just kept turning the ball over and it’s the same reason we were able to beat Quakertown,” Nase said. “Last week we were able to create turnovers and tonight we gave the ball away. Two times early, and we get the ball back in the third quarter and turn it over again.”
Nase, in his second season at Cheltenham, has guided the Panthers to a terrific start to the season behind a determined defense and an offense loaded with athletes and threats. He noted his challenge now is to make sure his guys don’t let Friday’s setback define their season the same way he didn’t let last week’s win do the same.
The scary part for the SOL American is most of the Panthers’ top performers are juniors or younger. Those guys, especially tailback Jamir Barnes, have already gotten the attention of defensive coaches across the conference.
On Friday, the Cardinals knew if they let Barnes get going, he was going to make things very difficult on them.
“We had to focus on containing the running back and making sure he didn’t cut back, because he had a lot of success with that against Quakertown,” UD linebacker John Kohlbrenner, who had a sack and interception, said. “That’s what we did and it’s how we became successful tonight.”
Penn Charter really beat Upper Dublin up on the ground, so Stover wanted to see how his defense, particularly the linebackers and guys up front, responded. UD also welcomed back gigantic defensive tackle Quinton Derr (6-foot-4, 265 pounds), a senior cocaptain, back to the fold after a knee injury.
Heim and Kohlbrenner both credited the defensive line for creating pressure all night and for keeping the Cheltenham backs from bouncing too many runs to the outside.
“Our defensive staff and players took it to heart last week, we got it put on last week by a good Penn Charter team,” Stover said. “It was kind of like, ‘what are we going to do?’ We should have picked off the first one, picked off the second and from there, our defense played lights out. It’s why I punted on fourth and one late in the game, I just trusted the way we were playing.”
Barnes rushed for just 36 yards, but did catch four balls for 63 yards as Upper Dublin kept him from breaking a big one. Heim came up a couple of times to stop the tailback for short gains and as a unit, the Cardinals defenders didn’t let Barnes break through too many of their initial tackles.
“Our kids ran a scout program this week, they did a nice job trying to be him, but you just can’t be him, you can’t emulate that, he is just that good,” Stover said of Barnes. “We knew we were in trouble if he got loose.”
Upper Dublin got all the offense it would need in the second quarter. Cardinals junior quarterback Mike Slivka didn’t have a huge night statistically, but he made some huge plays at the right time for his team. He hit Dylan Zlotnikoff for a 15yard gain on third down to start the second quarter, keeping a drive going until he ended it with a seven-yard TD pass to Jason Scott in the back corner of the endzone on third and goal.
The next Cardinals drive, Slivka again found Scott, this time for 45 yards down to the Cheltenham nine-yard line, setting up Lucas Roselli for a three-yard touchdown run. Scott also had a 26-yard grab in the second half, an impressive snare over a pair of Cheltenham defenders.
Slikva also came up clutch in the third quarter. On a booming kickoff by Cheltenham’s Justin Grady, the returner slipped at the three-yard line so Slivka gave his guys some breathing room when he hit Brody Balasa for 39 yards.
“Even the one play they made on the scoring drive, we had two guys in the quarterback’s face and two guys in the receiver’s face and their two kids made a better play than our four kids,” Nase said. “That quarterback, we saw it on film, he’s like a high school Carson Wentz, he’s hard to get down, he can escape out of everything and if you let him get out, he can make a play.”
The challenge for Cheltenham is to bounce back next week against Plymouth Whitemarsh, especially with a spot in the 5A District I playoffs very much up for grabs.
“I don’t know if we lost focus, we just turned the ball over, weren’t good enough and got beat tonight,” Nase said. “It comes down to what are we going to do to make sure that our best is never not good enough again.”
Kohlbrenner’s acrobatic interception helped set up the Cardinals’ first score.
“The quarterback rolled out and I saw the screen coming and him throw the ball,” Kohlbrenner said. “I kind of tipped it and as I was going down, I caught it again.”
Cheltenham’s lone score came early in the third quarter. A high snap on a Cardinals punt led to the punter trying to run the ball out of the endzone, losing a fumble and Cheltenham’s Sam Sykes diving on it for the touchdown recovery.
After that, the Cardinals defense knew it was on them.
“We love playing defense, we take pride in everything and get after it,” Heim said. “We just had to keep doing our thing. We told each other don’t let up and keep pushing.”
Cheltenham’s Sam Sykes fields the ball after a blocked punt against Upper Dublin Friday night.