SPRINGFIELD >> The theory that most high-scoring teams adhere to — that the best defense is a good offense — doesn’t seem to apply to top-seeded Springfield.
The Cougars’ defense proved to be as good as any offense in a 38-0 win over No. 16 Penncrest in Friday night’s District 1 Class 5A playoff opener.
Getting most of their firepower from the defensive side, the hosts returned three interceptions for touchdowns, including a pair of scores over a 52-second span of the first quarter.
“Our defense played well,” said Springfield head coach Chris Britton. “They outscored our offense. It’s a good problem to have.”
The parade to the end zone started early. After the Lions went three-and-out, the Cougars (10-1) opened the scoring through Ja’den Mckenzie. The big back took a screen pass from Johnny Fanelli and raced 33 yards to the end zone. The defense took over from there.
On Penncrest’s first snap following the score, Kevin Deal knocked a Chris Mills’ throw off line. Springfield corner Joe Kennedy snatched the wobbly ball and raced 33 yards for six points.
Then it was Vince Puppio’s turn. The Lions kept it on the ground for one play, before challenging the Cougars through the air again. This time Manny Ruffin had his hands on the pass, knocking it in the air and briefly grabbing it, but couldn’t gain full control. Instead, Puppio ripped the ball away and dashed 25 yards for a TD.
“I just thought, ‘Are you kidding me? The whole team is eating. This is awesome,’” said Kennedy. “I can’t say enough. I’m proud of the whole team getting involved, getting the ball, getting out early and getting the job done.”
Up 21-0 with just 5:22 gone, Springfield could afford to cruise. The Cougars defeated Penncrest 42-14 in the regular season three weeks ago, and gave the Lions no hope for redemption.
“If anything, I think it’d be easier to lose the first time and come out (harder) the second time,” Kennedy said. “We just came out with the same mentality that we just had to get it done.”
Still, the Springfield offense sputtered. Having been off the field for long stretches of a time, the Cougars fell out of rhythm. From the 5-minute, 22-second mark of the first quarter to the 10:09 mark in the fourth, the Cougars managed three points — a 37-yard field goal from Jack Coary — and one turnover.
Some credit should fall to Penncrest’s defensive unit.
“We’ve been playing solid all season,” said Lions cornerback Jaden Brennan. “You can’t give up now.”
Brennan produced the play of the game for the visitors when he came down with a Fanelli pass in the end zone late in the third quarter.
“He threw the fade on me,” explained Brennan. “I turned my head to the ball. I saw it, picked it out of the air and came down with it.”
And yet, nothing came of the interception against the staunch Cougars’ defense. For the game, Springfield held Penncrest to 61 yards of total offense and two first downs. The Lions (3-8) completed three passes. Their longest play of the night was a fake punt, with Caleb Mahalik gaining 24 yards.
After Mckenzie broke the Cougars’ scoring drought with a 20-yard run early in the fourth quarter, David Strawley provided the appropriate conclusion. He intercepted Chris Chelo, in for Mills, and converted it for six points.
“In the secondary, we had good communication,” said Kennedy. “Our line got great pressure, and they had a lot of deflections. Basically, they took care of it up front. We just cleaned up the mess and took it back to the house.”
The victory sets up a familiar matchup for Springfield, which will host former head coach Dan Ellis and No. 8 Great Valley next week in a rematch of the 2014 district final. The Patriots advanced with a 34-14 win over No. 9 Glen Mills.