Spartans defense lays foundation
HUGHESVILLE — Nasir Heard hurdled a defender, burst down the left sideline and went untouched most of the way to score a 64-yard, first-quarter touchdown.
It almost looked easy, but it was the last thing Bloomsburg earned the easy way against a constricting Hughesville defense Saturday night. The Spartans locked down from there and allowed just 49 yards on Bloomsburg’s next 29 plays over the next 2 1/2 quarters.
Yes, Bloomsburg won 34-6, but a stingy Hughesville defense provides a good foundation to build upon as the Spartans try turning things around following three wins the past three seasons. A year ago, Hughesville ranked near the bottom of District 4 in points and yards allowed, but following the rough start Saturday, the defense looked like one which could fuel a resurgence.
“I was very pleased with our defense. After the first couple of series they settled down,” Hughesville coach Adam Gehr said. “We were getting a good push and pressuring the quarterback and our run defense was good. Overall, our defense played very well.”
Bloomsburg finished with 261 yards, but 111 of those came on its first two series. After that, Hughesville limited the Panthers to just 2.1 yards per play. Bloomsburg scored eight points off a safety and interception so the 261 yards and 26 points show marked improvement from last season when opponents averaged 345 yards and 43.8 points per game.
It looked like more of the same when Bloomsburg needed just six plays to open a 12-0 lead. Often times last year, that initial snowball would become an avalanche and bury the Spartans. This time, the defense took over from there and kept Hughesville. Bloomsburg’s initial 12-0 lead stayed that way until the fourth quarter. When trying to change a culture, progress sometimes must be measured incrementally, not wins and losses.
Saturday, then, might have been a good start for Hughesville.
“They did respond. We have a great group of kids and they stick together,” Gehr said. “That’s one thing I preach is stick together. We win, we lose, we do everything as a team.”
Together, Hughesville put together its best defensive performance since 2018. Using a 5-2 front, defensive linemen Chase Snyder, Hayden Robbins, Hunter Herr, Gabe Wagner and Caleb Burkhart set a physical tone and frequently invaded Bloomsburg’s backfield. Wagner, Snyder and Herr combined for four sacks, Robbins recovered a fumble at the Bloomsburg 18-yard line and Burkett made five tackles.
Linebackers Colton Yocum and Brenden Knight had some big hits and Joey Swink and Mikey Dylina covered well as the defense came alive. Take away Heard’s 64-yard run and Bloomsburg gained just 42 yards on 22 rushing attempts. Three-year starting quarterback Jack Howell often had to hurry his throws and completed just 1 of 6 passes the rest of the first half, including being intercepted.
The Spartans also showed immense tackling improvement, rarely letting ball-carriers gain yards after contact over the final 3 1/2 quarters. They did not back down either, stopping Bloomsburg four consecutive times after it passed midfield looking to extend its 12-0 lead.
“Props to Hughesville. They came to play,” Bloomsburg wide receiver Brody Hock said. “They weren’t letting us do much.”
“Our whole defensive front played fantastic,” Gehr said. “We gave up a couple big plays (in the fourth quarter), but a lot of that comes back to the offense not moving the ball and giving our defense a break.”
Bloomsburg looked like it needed a break from Wagner when he started taking over in the second quarter. The sophomore defensive end looks like a player who could help ignite this defense over the next three seasons. Wagner collected 2 1/2 first-half sacks and finished with five tackles as well as another quarterback hurry.
“He’s one of our unsung heroes. Gabe is a quiet kid but he leads by example on the field,” Gehr said. “He was not starting going into camp, but we saw him at camp and we said we can’t keep him off the field. He has to play. He showed up (Saturday) and played great.”
Several teammates did as well and the first brick in what Hughesville hopes is a winning foundation may just have been laid.