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Defense silences Wildcats
JACKSON -- The Jackson defense gave Eureka a good test back in Week 8 of the regular season, when Eureka won 17-10 in a key Class 5 District 1 game.
But the Indians had a tougher challenge ready Saturday in the rematch.
Jackson held visiting Eureka (10-2) to a season-low seven points in a 10-7 victory in the Class 5 state quarterfinal game. The Wildcats were shut out in a half for the first time this season, going to the locker room in a scoreless tie.
"I think they were surprised," said Jackson junior linebacker Cole Rodgers, who was credited with eight tackles in the first half. "I think they thought they were coming down here to beat us again and beat us at our place. We wanted this one bad. The last time we played them gave us a lot of confidence we could get where we are, I think.
"We've just had our heads up since that game."
The Indians have won five straight since that loss, including a shutout win against Parkway North in Monday's sectional.
"We're just getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback, the linebackers are flying around making plays and we're doing a good job stopping the pass," Rodgers said. "As a group, we're so much better."
It has been a drastic turnaround for a defense counted on to lead the team beyond last year's state semifinal appearance, but was shredded for 32 points by Riverview Gardens, 35 by Hazelwood Central and 42 by Farmington -- all losses in a 3-5 start.
"We hit a lull right there, but they hung together," Jackson coach Van Hitt said. "There was never any grumblings from the kids. They just kept working harder and getting better as the season went along."
The Indians made some personnel adjustments, putting running back Adam Zweigart out as a cornerback and quarterback Marcus Harris in at safety. Harris leads the team with four interceptions, and he noted that Ethan Ruch's experience at cornerback is starting to pay off.
"People forget he's still a sophomore," Harris said. "But I think playing more games has really helped out."
Ruch deflected away one pass in the end zone Saturday, and the one TD pass -- a 6-yarder from Luke Thuston to 6-footer Maurice Alexander -- was defended well.
"He just jumped higher than our kid could jump," Hitt said.
Although Thuston hit a high percentage of passes -- 16 of 24 -- he threw for just 105 yards. Contrast that to the first meeting, when he completed 21 of 26, including one as a halfback, for 228 yards. He threw a 60-yarder for a touchdown in that game.
"Our secondary did a great job of covering," Hitt said. "We wanted to keep the big play out of the ballgame. That's what they beat us with last time -- the pass play and the interception. They didn't do that today."
Rodgers said the Wildcats spent a lot of time during the week preparing for Eureka's quick passes to the sidelines for receiver screens.
"That's something they got us on the first time we played them this year," Rodgers said. "We did a good job stopping everything."
The Indians stopped Thuston in particular. Although he accounted for just 28 of Eureka's 118 yards rushing in the first meeting, the quarterback got the call a lot more Saturday. Thuston was coming off a 206-yard performance against Vianney that brought his season total to a team-leading 1,185 yards.
On Saturday, he carried 26 times for 43 yards, just 13 in the first half. He had two runs of 10 yards or more all day while being taken down for a loss eight times, seven in the first half.
"We worked all week on stopping the quarterback," Rodgers said. "We figured if we could stop him, we could shut them down."
For the game, Eureka had 82 yards rushing to total 185 yards of offense. The Wildcats were penalized 61 yards on offense.
"We knew defensively what they were," Eureka coach Farrell Shelton said. "Today, they didn't give us any free points. We had to earn everything we got."
Eureka got its seven points with 1:08 to play on a drive that included two fourth-down conversions and two Jackson penalties.
After Eureka had been stopped on a fourth-and-1 at Jackson's 12 on the preceding drive, the Wildcats forced a punt that left them 52 yards away with 5:10 remaining.
On fourth-and-6 at Jackson's 33, Thuston passed 10 yards over the middle to Antonio Evans for the first. Thuston threw to the end zone on the next play, but Ruch broke up the play. A few plays later, Eureka was looking at another fourth-and-long. It hinted at a long pass play over the middle on a play that was called back by a motion penalty, and it tried the same thing on the next play. Marcus Harris intercepted the pass and ran over to the sideline, but a pass interference call gave Eureka a first down at Jackson's 14.
Hitt said one of his linebackers slipped, and in the process of avoiding falling, pushed a Eureka receiver.
"It was a heck of a call," he said. "If you're an official, that's a tough one to make because the game is over. We just have a way of making it exciting."
Thuston was hit out of bounds on the next play and a personal foul moved the ball to the 6-yard line. He threw to Alexander on the next play for the touchdown.
"They were just getting closer and closer and we had to keep our heads in it," Jackson linebacker Blake Peiffer said. "The only reason they scored was because of penalties. Other than that, they wouldn't have gotten in the end zone."
The shutout was lost, but the victory still was sweet as Jackson repeated last year's home-field win against Eureka in the game that mattered most.
"This feels amazing," Peiffer said. "It almost feels better than last year's win because right now we're still in the playoffs. Last year, it was getting to the playoffs; this year, it's in the playoffs and I can't even explain how good it feels right now."
From the other sideline, Shelton had respect for the latest installment in Jackson's defensive tradition.
"Their front three and two inside linebackers are pretty special," Shelton said. "Their whole defense -- we've played them now for six years, and it's always been like that. It's very difficult to run on them."
@z_agate_no tab_no indnt_bld ld:Fourth Quarter
J -- Adam Zweigart 11 run (Morgan Johnson kick), 11:26.
A 12-play drive of nothing but runs covered 56 yards. Fullback Andy Winkleblack's 4-yard plunge up the middle on fourth-and-3 from the Eureka 24 keeps the drive alive.
@z_agate_no tab_no indnt_bld ld:12 plays, 56 yards, 4:24. Jackson, 7-0.
E -- Maurice Alexander 6 pass from Luke Thuston (Corey Smith kick), 1:08.
Eureka picked up a fourth-and-6 with a 10-yard pass from Thuston to Antonio Evans and a fourth-and-14 at the 27 with a pass interference penalty away from what would have been a clinching interception.
@z_agate_no tab_no indnt_bld ld:11 plays, 51 yards, 4:02. Tied, 7-7
J -- Johnson 20 FG, :06.8.
After Mitchell McCulley's kick return set up Jackson at its own 47-yard line, Zweigart busted through the left side for a 40-yard run, helping to set up the winning field goal.
@z_agate_no tab_no indnt_bld ld:4 plays, 50 yards, :51. Jackson, 10-7.
@z_agate_no tab_no indnt_bld ld:INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
Rushing -- Jackson, Adam Zweigart 31-166, Drew Bucher 12-24, Andy Winkleblack 3-15, Team 2-(-16); Eureka, Luke Thuston 26-43, Antonio Evans 5-9, Walter Williams 4-30, Ryan Marble 1-0.
Passing -- Jackson, Marcus Harris 2-11-1 14; Eureka, Thuston 16-24-0 105.
Receiving -- Jackson -- Zweigart 1-6, Winkleblack 1-8; Eureka, Antonio Evans 7-48, Brandon Richard 1-2, Alexander 3-31, Tyler Turnbill 2-15, Austin Evans 4-23.