Jacob LaPoint (90) and Jack Linch (44) tackle Findlay's Vance Settlemire as Joenathan Mays moves in. Whitmer has allowed just 6.8 points per game.
Coming off their exhilarating 42-0 win at Central Catholic in the regular-season finale -- a victory that gave them a repeat Three Rivers Athletic Conference championship, and bumped them up to No. 3 in the final Division I state poll -- the Whitmer Panthers were due for a letdown in last their playoff opener.
If a 28-0 shutout of perennial playoff power Avon Lake can considered a letdown, then the Panthers (11-0) might have had one.
Don't tell that to the Whitmer defense, however, because that unit recorded its second straight shutout, and lowered its points-allowed-per-game average to a stingy 6.8.
No, there was no letdown in a defense that yielded just 158 yards (117 passing) to the Shoremen on 56 plays from scrimmage.
"Winning the TRAC was one of our goals," first-year coach Jerry Bell said, "but our No. 1 goal is winning a state title. That Central win was huge for our program, and that will be one of those games you'll talk about quite a bit over the years to come.
"But, for our kids, that's over now. We beat Avon Lake, and we're just going to take it one day at a time from here."
And if Whitmer's next opponent -- the 9-2 Hudson Explorers -- hope for another win to match last week's impressive 38-6 romp at Canton GlenOak, they will need to find a way to crack the Panthers' stoppers.
The teams meet at 7 p.m. Saturday at Strobel Field in Sandusky in a regional semifinal.
Bell has come to rely on his defense, and hopes the offense will shake off its doldrums of last Saturday, when Whitmer had three turnovers, plus some other occasional hiccups in execution.
"That was a huge accomplishment," Bell said of Whitmer's defense against Avon Lake. "Our defense continues to get better. They had a goal-line stand late in that game, which really showed our kids' character.
"The offense put them in a bad position with a fumble at our 5-yard line, and they still got the shutout. Those kids just played lights-out the entire game against Avon Lake."
Panthers senior quarterback Nick Holley, who came in averaging 142 rushing yards per game, was held to 75 yards on 18 carries, including a 40-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter on a broken play.
What Holley was able to do with some ease, however, was fire up his right arm. He completed 19 of his 28 passes for 263 yards, with twin brother Nate Holley (five catches, 100 yards) and fellow wideout Keith Howell (five catches, 77 yards) serving as frequent targets.
In its upcoming test, Whitmer will be facing a balanced Explorers attack triggered by talented 6-3, 163-pound sophomore quarterback Mitchell Guadagni, who is 119-of-208 passing for 1,439 yards and 21 TDs with four interceptions. Guadagni has also rushed 66 times for 399 yards and three scores.
The top rushing threat is 6-3, 230-pound senior back Ben Gedeon (167 carries, 1,003 yards, 10 TDs), who is complemented by back Jared Ruffing (59 attempts, 232 yards, 3 TDs).
Guadagni's top pass targets have been playmaker Tim Kennedy (45 catches, 706 yards, 13 TDs) and fellow senior wideout Leighton Antonio (35 catches, 517 yards, 3 TDs).
"Hudson is an extremely well-coached football team," Bell said. "They've got some speed at wide receiver, and they hit a lot of big plays. They've got a very good running back who is a Michigan recruit, and he also plays linebacker.
"Their defense runs to the ball well, and they look to be physical. They could present some problems for us with the kids at their skill positions, and the speed the have on defense. We have to limit the big play, we need to win the turnover battle, and we need to play physical and fast."
Hudson, which lost in the regular season to Brunswick (26-22) and Elyria (26-16), has outscored its foes 362-186. The Explorers were co-champions of the Northeast Ohio Conference's River Division.
Asked what concerned him most about his team's upcoming matchup against Whitmer, Hudson coach Ron Wright had two quick and decisive answers.
"Their quarterback," Wright said. "He's tough. He can throw and run, and he's a tough dude, man. I like him a lot. Also, they fly around on defense. They're good."
Holley has been the essence of a two-way threat at quarterback, rushing 161 times for 1,491 yards and 17 TDs, and going 98-of-154 passing for 1,349 yards and 20 TDs.
Senior backs Tre Sterritt (82 carries, 554 yards, 11 TDs) and Me'Gail Frisch (117 carries, 602 yards, 10 TDs), and wideout Chris Boykin (31 catches, 490 yards, 10 TDs) add balance to a Whitmer offense that averages 387 yards and 42 points per game.
"We've got to hold the ball, and score points," Wright said of the Explorers' keys to victory. "We'll have to see if we can score on that defense. That's a pretty formidable task.
"Holley's good and he's got some nice skill kids around him. He delivers the ball to them and they can make big plays. They've got a lot of weapons."
The Panther defense, which has surrendered just 172 yards per game, is led in tackles by senior linebackers Jack Linch (121), Nate Holley (107), and Devin Thomas (100).
The interior line duo of Marquise Moore (55 tackles, 7 sacks) and Joenathan Mays (60 tackles, 3 sacks) provides a formidable wall up front, and a Marcus Elliott leads the secondary with seven interceptions. Whitmer has picked off 22 passes as a team.
"It's just been remarkable," Bell said of his memorable rookie season as head coach. "I'm extremely thankful for my staff and the kids that we have. They've been tremendous, and the community support we've had over the years has been outstanding."
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.
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