NEW ORLEANS – Yes, defense still wins championships.
In an age of high-powered scoring machines featuring spread offenses, the old adage of defense winning championships was never more on display than in West St. John’s 20-14 victory over Kentwood in the Class 1A title game Thursday afternoon in the Superdome.
Offense was hard to come by as two championship-caliber defenses squared off. West St. John’s defense actually built the Rams’ early lead and was counted upon to come up big time and time again down the stretch.
“I reminded them throughout the game and in the locker room, no disrespect to our offense, but if you can’t stop people, don’t expect to win,” West St. John coach Brandon Walters said. “That is kind of what we like to hang our hat on. You have to be able to stop people. We take pride in holding you to the other side of your 50-yard line. They (the Kangaroos) got over a couple of times today but it’s just a testament to the work ethic that the kids have put in and the coaches and these are the spoils.”
The spoils include West St. John’s first state championship since 2004.
“It feels good bring it back to Edgard – ‘Bluetown,’” said Nico Davis, a factor in the Rams’ championship victory on both offense and defense.
“It’s awesome, man. I've been dreaming about it since I was young, and it finally happened,” said defensive end Covan Barnes, who like Davis, had a key first-half interception.
“It’s a great feeling to be a state champion. I love it,” said running back Kylan Duhe, who was named the Rams’ Outstanding Player in the game.
A pair of West St. John interceptions in the first half – one leading to a quick score and the other directly resulting in a touchdown – staked the Rams to a 13-7 halftime lead.
After West St. John pulled ahead 20-7, a 16-yard pass from Kentwood quarterback Larenz Morris to Trey Palmer left the Rams with a precarious six-point edge with more than a quarter remaining in the game.
Following the Morris-to-Palmer touchdown, the Rams ate up the final 5:11 of the third quarter. West St. John had first-and-goal at the Kentwood 3-yard line at that point but a holding penalty backed up the Rams. WSJ attempted a 29-yard field goal to try and make it a two-score lead but Lewis’ attempt was short, leaving the Rams up only by six points.
After forced into a pair of three-and-outs, the Kangaroos got the ball back at their own 17 with 4:05 left in the game.
Kentwood marched to the West St. John 20, but on second-and-six, Trenton Grow intercepted Morris at the 1-yard line with two minutes left in the game.
That challenge answered, Roy went on a 14-yard tackle-breaking run to pick up a first down at the 20.
“I just wanted to put the game way,” Roy said of his tackle-breaking run.
West St. John forced Kentwood to burn its timeouts but the Kangaroos got the ball back at their own 47 with 1:20 left in what was still a one-score game.
One challenge still remained.
Morris connected with Palmer down inside the 10-yard line but an ineligible receiver penalty on the play left Kentwood facing third down from the WSJ 36 with 23 seconds left in the game. Trejan Thomas intercepted Morris at the 7-yard line.
The last of four interceptions by the Rams’ defense sealed the state championship for West St. John, which ended the year with a 12-2 record.
“Not to be biased, but I’m a defensive guy. I love the trenches. I love that physicality that’s brought to those games. Those are the types of games that will test your intestinal fortitude. These guys rose to it,” Walters said of the Rams’ defensive effort.
West St. John won the toss and deferred, putting the Rams’ defense on display early.
“We like to put the defense on the field. We’ve only done it twice this year where started off with the defense on the field and this was one of them. We wanted to set the tone and kind of hit them in the mouth a little bit from the get-go and defer to the (second) half. We expected to be up on them and get the ball in the second half,” said Walters.
It couldn’t have been scripted any better. Two plays into the game, Roy, from his linebacker position, intercepted Morris and returned the errant throw to the Kentwood 4-yard line.
“It was a big play,” Roy said. “You just have to get into your drops, get underneath and I just picked it off.”
Two plays after that, Duhe scored on a 3-yard run and the Rams had a 7-0 lead less than two minutes in the game.
From that point on, it was apparent the game would be a defensive battle.
West St. John spent the remainder of the first half backed up in its own territory. A short punt from the Rams’ 19-yard line gave Kentwood the ball at the WSJ 49 with 59 seconds left in the first quarter.
Kentwood came up with one of the few big offensive plays of the half when Morris tossed 32-yards to Radarrian Robbins down to the 3-yard line. West St. John’s defense stiffened, backing the Kangaroos to the 9-yard line and facing fourth down. Morris found Robbins in the right corner of the end zone to tie the game at the 10:50 mark of the second quarter.
Robbins intercepted West St. John quarterback D’andre Gaudia at the Rams’ 45 on the ensuing possession.
Kentwood went for the quick strike but a wide-open Palmer dropped the ball. In need a momentum changer, Barnes came through championship style when he picked off Morris’ attempt two plays later and raced in for the touchdown. Lewis’ failed extra point left West St. John with a six-point edge of 13-7 that held up through halftime.
“We work on it in practice a lot. On the screens defensive ends go to the screen, inside guys run to the quarterback. I saw him hiding in the line, and I picked it off,” Barnes said of his interception.
Barnes said he had predicted earlier in the week that he would have a pick-6 in the game.
“I had been telling my big brother all week I was going to get an interception and run it back, and that’s what I did,” Barnes said of his brother, Corday, a former West St. John player from 2003-2007 and a state champion himself in 2003 and 2004.
West St. John managed a six-point halftime lead despite only 68 yards of total offense, all of it on the ground.
“They were overloading the box like everybody has done against us but they were more effective doing it. That was their blueprint. We just had a little trouble inside working up to the linebacker and he was just killing it,” Walters said of Kentwood’s defensive effort through two quarters.
Along with the point-producing interceptions, the Rams’ defense held Kentwood to 91 yards of total offense.
Getting the ball to open the second half, the Rams’ running game finally got on track.
With Roy and Duhe alternating carries, the Rams reached the Kentwood 23. On the only pass play of the possession, Grow made a leaping, one-handed grab along the WSJ sideline at the Kangaroos’ 4-yard line. Two plays later, Duhe scored from 3 yards out to extend West St. John’s lead to 20-7.
A halftime adjustment allowed the Rams’ running game to find more success in the second half.
“We went double tight. They were loading the box and they were sending a lot of pressure. We went double tight so they couldn’t do it like they wanted to do and we have two guys outside on the edge you still have to cover in Aason Moll and Trenton Grow. It worked for us,” Walters said.
After being held to 18 yards rushing in the first half, Duhe ended with 120 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns.
Kentwood, which ended its season 11-4, answered on its next possession on Morris’ 16-yard touchdown toss to Palmer to quickly make it a six-point margin and set the stage for West St. John’s defensive heroics down the stretch that handed the Rams the state championship.
Neither team reached 300 yards of total offense. West St. John finished with 224 yards.
Kentwood had 254 total yards. Morris was limited to 8 completions in 26 attempts for 107 yards. He rushed for 91 yards and was named Kentwood’s Outstanding Player.