HERSHEY, Pa. - It was sometime between winning the District 12 title and PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal victory over Easton that the La Salle defense turned a corner, coach Drew Gordon said.
Or, as linebacker Shane Brady puts it, the Explorers' defense found its "swagger."
"At the beginning of the season, everyone could run on us," said Brady, a senior. "But not lately."
Since allowing 14 points in the first quarter to Easton, La Salle has surrendered exactly one offensive touchdown in 11 quarters. Another shutout pitched by the defense in Saturday's 24-7 victory over State College in the Class AAAA championship game capped an outstanding run by the defense.
The lone touchdown scored by State College at HersheyPark Stadium was on a 96-yard kick return by Alex Kenney.
"We were never known for our defense before," junior defensive lineman Jonathan Naji said. "But our defense has been stepping up all throughout the playoffs. We've just been tough."
Real tough. State College, averaging 32 points per game with a bruising option offense, mustered just 96 yards of total offense against La Salle.
The Little Lions, the first District 6 team to reach the Class AAAA final, rarely pass the ball, making it even harder to mount a comeback. So once La Salle extended its lead to 17-0, the job was easier for the Explorers on defense.
"We just hit people," Brady said. "I don't think that team was ready to get hit like that."
Kenney, State College's star who is headed to Penn State, said La Salle's defense was the best the Little Lions had faced all season - by far. Kenney said he noticed the Explorers had specifically planned to stop the jet sweep out of the heavy-set backfield the Little Lions generally utilize.
"It's always the game plan," said Naji, who was credited with three tackles, including one for a loss. "We're always prepared for what they're going to do. We know exactly what they're going to run. Everyone knows their assignments. That's been the difference in the playoffs."
Brady and senior defensive back Kevin Forster led the defense with seven tackles each. And Vinny Migliarese picked off State College quarterback Matt Mazzara in the waning moments to ensue the celebration on the La Salle sideline.
It was a different attitude on defense that made the difference in the playoffs, Brady said. Gordon said he saw hints of the defense coming around in the 31-20 victory over George Washington in the District 12 championship. Thirteen of Washington's points were scored in garbage time.
"It's a confidence thing," Gordon said. "We didn't do great against O'Hara in the playoffs. And we didn't do great against the Prep. I don't know. Something happened. They came together."
And in the end, a team known for its explosive offense also had a pretty good defense, too.
"That's what it always has to be," Naji said. "Defense wins championships."