HANNIBAL, Mo. -- The numbers were gaudy, but they illustrated exactly what the Westminster Christian Academy football team wanted to do.
The Wildcats were going to line up and came right at you.
Westminster came into Friday night's Class 4 District 4 semifinal against Hannibal at Porter Stadium averaging 268 yards rushing per game and 5.2 yards per carry. In last week's victory over Parkway Central, the Wildcats had 354 yards rushing and finished with more than 300 yards rushing in five of their six victories. They had 243 yards rushing in the other.
"They are a pretty disciplined team running the ball," Hannibal coach Mark St. Clair said. "We told our guys if we were physical on the line of scrimmage we'd win the game."
The Pirates were manhandlers.
The Wildcats were limited to 81 yards rushing, their lowest rushing total of the season, as the Pirates advanced with a 49-14 victory at Porter Stadium. Westminster ran for 90 yards in a 49-10 loss to Lutheran North and 95 yards in a 21-14 loss to Wentzville Liberty. In neither of those games were the Wildcats able to throw the ball for sustained success. The same held true against the Pirates as the Wildcats completed 11 of 22 passes for 174 yards with two interceptions.
"If we'd had talked about our game plan, we would have said we want to make them throw the football," St. Clair said. "And we did."
Better yet, the Pirates pressured Wildcats quarterback Jackson Selk as well. Hannibal had three sacks and eight tackles for loss with linebacker Dante Reading responsible for three tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Defensive lineman Owen Johnson had1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss, and defensive lineman DaRell Perry broke up a pass.
"I'm very pleased with how our defense played," St. Clair said.
Adjusting to the defense
Hannibal quarterback Gabe Worthington didn't get to make the same decisions with the football he normally does. Westminster saw to that.
The Wildcats designed a defensive game plan to limit Worthington's ability to run the option, limiting him to 22 yards on six carries. So Worthington and the Pirates changed their approach. They ran the ball between the tackles, shoving it into the belly of sophomores Daylan Reading and Damien French 35 times. They combined for 160 yards as the Pirates finished with 209 yards on 48 carries.
"They took our option game away," St. Clair said. "We had to go back to some power and some play-action. We hurt them with play-action. You have to give them credit. They weren't going to let us get width. They weren't going to let us run the option. They didn't want Gabe carrying the ball."
The passing plays the Pirates connected on softened up the Wildcats' defense. Senior wide receiver Will Whitaker caught two passes for 73 yards and Reading turned a short pass into a 68-yard gain that set up Worthington's 1-yard touchdown run.
St. Clair knows miscues will happen.
"We fumbled the ball. Hey, that can happen. They do it in the NFL," he said.
So he wasn't overly concerned when Reading lost a fumble on the second play of the game. The way his defense responded to the adverse situation put him more at ease. The Pirates stuffed the Wildcats on third and 1 and fourth and 1, forcing them to turn the ball over on downs. The big plays in response to a tide-turning moment kept coming for Hannibal.
After the Pirates had a drive stall in the red zone, Hannibal linebacker Jordan Schafer intercepted a pass on the next play. When a 14-play drive that lasted nearly six minutes stalled in the red zone and resulted in incompletions on third and fourth down, the defense firm again. This time, the Pirates forced a punt and Will Whitaker returned it 94 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.
But the Pirates didn't relax because of it. They sacked Selk for a 7-yard loss on third and 3 and tackled fullback Zach Brasier inches short of a first down on a fourth-and-10 reception. It preserved the first-half shutout.
"During the summer, during the preseason, during the season every week, what we've said is, ‘How are we going to respond? How are we going to respond when something goes wrong? How are we going to respond when something goes good?'" St. Clair said. "It has to be the same thing. We have to move on the next play. We have to focus and do what we've got to do to be successful."