HERSHEY, Pa. - It was sometime between winning the District 12 title and taking the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal over Easton that the La Salle defense turned a corner, coach Drew Gordon said.
Or, as linebacker Shane Brady put 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 surrendered exactly one offensive touchdown in 11 quarters. Another shutout pitched by the defense in yesterday's 24-7 victory over State College in the Class AAAA championship game capped an outstanding run by the defense.
State College's lone touchdown at HersheyPark Stadium was 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 a game with a bruising option offense, mustered just 123 yards against La Salle.
The Little Lions, the first District 6 team to reach the Class AAAA final, rarely pass, making comebacks even harder to mount. So once La Salle extended its lead to 17-0, the job was easier for the defense.
"We just hit people," Brady said. "I don't think that team was ready to get hit like that."
Kenney, who is State College's star and headed to Penn State, said La Salle's defense was the best the Little Lions had faced all season - by far. He said he had noticed the Explorers specifically planned to stop the jet sweep out of the heavy-set backfield the Little Lions generally use.
"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 ignite the celebration on the La Salle sideline.
A different attitude on defense made the difference in the playoffs, Brady said. Gordon said he had seen hints of the defense coming around in the 31-20 victory over George Washington in the District 12 championship game. Thirteen of Washington's points came 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 had a pretty good defense, too.
"That's what it always has to be," Naji said. "Defense wins championships."