AMHERST – Looking back to the first week of practice in August, Amherst defensive coordinator Doug Spadoni wasn’t mincing words when it came to the unit’s performance.
Spadoni watched the offense gash the defense for 4 or 5 yards on every trap play. Baseball hats were flung to the ground. He asked to keep running the same play over and over again until his unit found a way to stop it.
In his best attention-grabbing vocabulary, Spadoni repeatedly informed his players about the importance of physicality, intensity and doing their jobs properly on every single play.
Fast-forward 13 weeks, and the Falcons’ defense is shaping up to once again be a shutdown force for the Falcons entering tonight’s Level 3 playoff matchup with Bonduel.
“They’ve come a long way. We’re still relatively young, and a lot of them didn’t understand the expectations we set for them early on,” Spadoni said. “They couldn’t quite grasp the level we were looking for.
“They’re coming along.”
Spadoni was the architect of a take-no-prisoners defense that surrendered just 41 points — most of those coming at garbage time — in five playoff wins to hoist the Division 5 gold trophy in 2012. So Spadoni has a pretty good idea what a championship caliber defense requires.
While perhaps not quite up to those standards — yet — the Falcons are making life miserable for offenses in the playoffs. Northern Elite and Stratford combined to muster just six points against Amherst in season-ending losses. Throw out a blown coverage on an 82-yard touchdown pass by the Tigers, and they would have finished with a paltry 110 yards of total offense.
“That 2012 team was an ‘A’ defense, and I would say right now we’re a borderline B- or C+,” senior linebacker Connor Zblewski said. “We’re a good defense, but not great defense, yet.
“Our defense has made a lot of progress, and it’s been lights out the past four weeks,” Zblewski added. “There was a lot of talk before the season (our defense) was not as good as past years and overrated. We wanted to show all the haters what we can do.”
Then there is the fear factor.
“(Coach Spadoni) expects perfection on every play from every player, and we know the consequences,” said Zblewski, half-joking.
Throw in a nasty attitude and a philosophy about stopping the run being priority No. 1, 2 and maybe 3.
How much emphasis is placed on shutting down running games?
The secondary is comprised of just three individuals, and the safety — in this case Ben Gutschow — is responsible for helping against the run before even thinking about any coverage responsibilities.
That leaves cornerbacks Amaziah McCall and Brandon Piotrowski to shut down the passing game.
“Teams know we play man-to-man and game plan around us,” Amherst head coach Mark Lusic said. “Our guys understand what we’re asking of them and that they’re going to be on islands. They understand that part. We ask them to trust their athletic ability and make the tackle.
“We believe you have to put your best athletes on defense because we believe you have to stop somebody to win championships.”
It sure seems to be working.
Points have been tough to come by all season against the Falcons. They have posted four shutouts and are surrendering an average of just 6.6 points per game.
Bonduel put up a season-worst 19 points against the Falcons on Sept. 5. No one else has scored more than 14.
In order to get that kind of performance, the Falcons coaches had to do some shuffling with personnel to get the right mix this season. All of the pieces are starting to fall into place at the right time.
One thing is clear — it’s never about statistics.
“We just want to be physical,” Spadoni said. “We never talk about numbers or goals. We tell them if you’re physical, we always have a chance (to win).
“The nice thing about this group is they’ve really caught on and bought into that,” Spadoni added. “They know whether or not they played well before we even talk to them. They know.”
Scott A. Williams can be reached at 715-345-2282. Find him on Twitter as @SPJScottWill