Bowling over offenses: Merrillville's close-knit defense records its second consecutive shutout
By CJ PETERS
MERRILLVILLE -- They do their best work on a football field, but some of Merrillville's talented, close-knit defense have also been known to roll a frame or two.
“It’s a group that’s always spending time together, even outside of football,” Terrelle Elmore said. “If it’s not all of us hanging out, it’ll be me and Trey (Stephens) going bowling or something. We are always spending time together. We all have that connection, we’re brothers.”
An Eastern Michigan commit, Elmore is deemed to be the better bowler, though Stephens notes that he has his days on the lanes, too.
On the turf, the Pirates knock down ball carriers like bowling pins.
Behind its ferocious front, Merrillville’s defense locked up La Porte on 59 total yards Friday, notching its second straight shutout and third consecutive win to celebrate homecoming, 40-0.
It marked the fifth straight loss for La Porte (1-5, 0-4 Duneland Athletic Conference), a span in which it's scored only 26 points and been blanked twice.
“They just overwhelmed our protection,”Slicers coach Epple said. “(Merrillville defensive coordinator Josh) Sabinas (a La Porte grad) does a really good job of disguising things and setting his players up for success. They have the athletes where they can run man-press and send six after you."
Elmore had one of three sacks for Merrillville (5-1, 3-1), along with Stevens and Adam Camphor. Warren Brown also had an interception and Jaylen Ramsay blocked a punt.
Stephens’ sack and ensuing scoop-and-score put the Pirates up 27-0 early in the third quarter and was one of his three TDs, adding six carries 31 yards and two scores – a five-yarder in the first and an 11-yarder in the third.
“I kind of fell with the QB and I felt the ball come out when I punched it, so I was quick to get up,” Stephens said. “I saw Terrelle try to scoop it, but he had tripped over someone. I saw the ball pop out, picked it up, saw some green grass and then was like, ‘I gotta score this.’
Seiss called the 6-foot, 200-pound Stephens the team’s ‘jack-of-all-trades.’
“We’ll play him on the field as a safety and bring him down a lot because he’s a good tackler,” he said. “He does some good stuff off the edge, last week he had a couple explosive plays off the edge and he did it again tonight. He’s a turnover waiting to happen with the way he can tackle and how explosive he is.
“Having our running back play consecutive plays is a harder thing to do, and Trey comes in there and does a nice job. He is just doing a good job of doing what we ask him to do. He’s playing really well.”
It’s a role that Stephens is more than comfortable in.
“It’s just playing wherever they need me,” he said.
Elmore, an edge rusher, is considered by Seiss to be the ‘vocal leader’ of a defensive line he describes as ‘really good.’
“It’s an experienced group,” Elmore said. “Camphor started as a sophomore, Roshaun (McGee) is a three-year starter, James Veal is a guy who didn’t start on defense last year but has experience on offense and Quran Moore is in his first year, but he’s gonna be solid for us.
“I think with our D-line being so good, it just makes the guys behind us play better and makes things easier for them. It just gives our defense more opportunities. We stayed home where we needed to, read our keys and got to our gaps and just played how we’re coached to play.”
Stephens, too, gives a lot of credit to the defensive line.
“They play as one, they’re a group that’s tough and physical and I don’t think a lot of people give them credit for that,” he said. “Our defense relies heavily on them, so whenever we do well, it’s really thanks to the D-line, because it just makes everything easier for the linebackers, safeties, DBs. They made things really easy for us.”
Merrillville's defense has allowed a combined 32 points in its fiver wins.
“That’s where our experience is," Seiss said of the line. "With Roshaun, Terrelle and Adam, they all played a lot of football for us and they make life easier for some of the newer guys that are playing. We’re still a pretty young team. I think our defense starts eight juniors and below, and we rotate some guys in, but with six games under their belt, they’re playing better. We're much better on first and second down and putting offenses in pretty tough spots to convert.
“If we can put offenses in situations where our guys know that they’re gonna throw it, they’re pretty good pass rushers. I think what gets forgotten a lot is our corners do a good job of playing coverage, like the one time they threw it early and our safety got over the top for the interception. They just keep playing better and better, which is what you want.”
JQ Johnson ran 22 times for 108 yards and a touchdown for a rushing attack that totaled 235 of the team’s 403 yards. Javeoin Gills had seven carries for 45 yards, adding the game’s final score on a 23-yard run with four minutes left.
Dontae Pope threw his first touchdown of the year on the opening drive, connecting with John Peters for a 19-yard score on third and 9. Peters had six grabs for 109 yards as Pope completed 12-of-19 for 168 yards, running six times for 45 yards.
“We’ve struggled to throw the ball, everybody that has watched us play has seen that,” Seiss said. “That first drive was big to get some third down conversions and a drive in the second where we had a fourth down conversion for 17 to Tremont Bogard, who’s just a sophomore, and we were then able to score. To be able to get Dontae some confidence throwing the ball, because he’s obviously already an accomplished runner, is huge for our offense.”
Up next for Merrillville is a foe it’s been waiting to play since Nov. 11. – Valparaiso – who ended Merrillville’s season at regionals last season with a 15-14 win.
As Seiss acknowledges the battle that’ll be, Elmore and Stephens are ready to go.
“...Yeah, I was pretty broken after that game,” Elmore said. “They sent us home. I’m going into that game with a vendetta, I can’t lie. e love that we just got the win and we love that we got that second shutout in a row. We’re coming with some heat, we’re coming ready to play. It’s not gonna be one of them games, we’re coming to play. Definitely.”
For Stephens, there is what he calls a ‘vengeance.’
“I, we played our hearts out that game and we didn’t come out with the result that we wanted,” he said. “We’re just looking forward to that game, just looking forward to it.”
Trenton Nixon, Roshaun McGee and Trey Stephens of Merrillville pursue Michigan City's Jaden Hart in last week's game. The Pirates backed up their shutout of the Wolves by blanking La Porte, also scoring a defensive touchdown for the second straight game. (Photo by Mike Kellems)