Scoring without offense: Merrillville notches touchdowns on special teams, defense in shutout of MC
MICHIGAN CITY -- Zero is the magic number for any defense, unless the game in fantasy football.
"That's 30 points right there," Merrillville's Terrell Elmore said, tabulating the totals for the Pirates' performance Friday against Michigan City based on fantasy scoring.
While the offense struggled, it was monster night for the Bucs defense and special teams, which registered two touchdowns, two interceptions and a shutout in a 17-0 blanking of the Wolves.
"Obviously, the defense and special teams stepped up," Merrillville coach Brad Seiss said. "We've been struggling a little offensively. It was an unconventional win. You usually don't win 17-0 without scoring an offensive touchdown. We'll take it."
On a night when it's defense allowed three points, Michigan City still lost as Merrillville returned a blocked field goal 75 yards and an interception 25 yards for touchdowns in the final seven minutes to grind out the Duneland Conference win at Ames Field.
"We're good in one (phase)," Wolves coach Cody French said of the defense. "That's not going to get it done. Last week, we couldn't run the ball, this week, we couldn't throw it. Special teams were terrible. Teams are going to try to expose that the rest of the year. It goes from three to 10 and snowballs. The defense played lights out. I thought they were physical, I thought we were physical. I couldn't ask for more out of them."
Merrillville (4-1, 2-1) was clinging to a 3-0 edge in the fourth quarter with City (2-3, 1-2) on the move.
"I felt like, with our defense, if we take the lead, it would've been enough," French said.
After a fumble recovery, the Wolves reached the Pirates 9, but wound up going for a 27-yard Gavin Baldwin field goal that came out low and was blocked by Adam Camphor. "He blocked it with his club," Trey Stephens said of the cast on Camphor's hand.
Trenton Nixon scooped up the rolling ball at the 25 while some City players paused and raced the other way for the game's first touchdown with 6:55 left.
"Usually when you block field goals, they think they blow the whistle and the play's over, but it's not an extra point, it's a field goal," Elmore said. "We noticed on film, their snapper, the ball rolls back, so we just wanted to go get that. We thought we could get it."
The stunning swing play was actually foreshadowed by Seiss.
"The awareness to go scoop and score is big," he said. "In high school, because the whistle blows, if you block an extra point, a lot of times people forget about the second part. I saw into the future and told our coaches to get back. I thought we had a good chance to block it. We didn't want a mob on the sideline."
Jaylen Ramsey's pick six off Tyler Bush in the final minute accounted for other TD and iced the proverbial cake.
"I knew he had great speed," Stephens said. "I know that's six. Any points, they all count. We do very extensive coverage over any team we play. Coach (Josh) Sabinas really works hard on that. The defensive linemen have a chip on their shoulder from last year. They were called soft, weak from the Crown Point game. My job is to keep everything in front of me, whether it's coverage wise or in the run. If it's field side, they want me to play back and don't let anything cut back to the boundary."
Seiss kidded about giving Ramsey, who has the same name as the NFL star cornerback, the same number five.
"Maybe it can elevate his play," he said. "Knowing they were pressed, he got underneath (the route). He's had a really good season. .. Obviously, the defense and special teams stepped up. We've been struggling a little offensively. It was an unconventional win. You usually don't win 17-0 without scoring an offensive touchdown. We'll take it."
City ran for 182 yards, 107 by Jaden Hart, but Tyler Bush passed just 6-of-17 for 20 yards and the two picks.
"We were a little bit bend but don't break," Seiss said. "We gave some yards. We held (Hobart's Terrell) Caldwell in check. Last week, Portage had a good receiver we held in check. Even Crown Point, they ran more than they threw. (Michigan City has) thrived on getting explosive plays. I felt like with the line we have and playmakers, we could eventually stick our foot in the ground and make plays. Our corners have played very well. They haven't allowed big plays."
Merrillville hemmed in Cam Bell, whose six touches netted just nine yards. For French, it was more a case of what could have been.
"We left plays on the field again," French said. "The (second) interception was my fault. That was a bad play call. That's not on him. We dropped two touchdowns in the end zone on the same possession. We missed Cam wide open running down the seam. I bet when we pause the film, we won't see a defender. With our offense and how it's built, we can't do that. We thought we could run the ball. If we're going to be run heavy like we were, those play action shots down field have to be points. We knew that was how we were going to have to beat them."
Hart accounted for Bush's other two completions as the balance of the pass catchers were blanked.
"We had been studying film all week, going and watching film on our own time," Ellmore said. "We wanted to know what they were running before they run it, then go and make that play. Everything we practiced held true. We knew they had some dudes who could make big plays, a really talented wide receiver core. We read our keys. It came down to all of us working together."
Jovanni Martinez's 27-yard field goal in the second quarter accounted for the only points over the first 41 minutes. The Wolves gifted 30 yards on the possession with a hit out of bounds and a hit to the head, continuing its trend of 'behavior' penalties that also included two unsportsmanlike conduct flags and a personal foul.
"We also had some issues with handling adversity that will be handled Monday," French said. "Some guys are going to have to decide if they really want to be a part of the hard part of this. I don't assume it's going to be easy to fix. When things get hard, people resort to what you know, your instincts. It's something have to continue to work on, to develop. Adrian Holley, Dion Smith played hard and played with good sportsmanship. Overall, I thought the defense did also. Some guys either need to figure it out or decisions are going to be made."
The shutout was the first against Michigan City since 2016 versus Valparaiso (29-0).
"That (Merrillville) team knows how to win. In those situations, they're looking to make plays. I still think we've got some guys on the field on their heels waiting for somebody else to make the play, or waiting for them to make a play instead of being in attack mode and going to get it. We have to get better. I know that's coach speak, but I feel like we're close," French said. "That doesn't mean anything. Close means we lose. If we can get over the hump, I feel we can be a really good team. We're close to being really good."
Merrillville's Terrell Elmore and Greg Hughes tackle Olijah Collins of Michigan City for a loss in Friday's 17-0 Pirates' victory over the Wolves. (Photo by Mike Kellems)