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Ridley’s defensive pursuit chases down win over Upper Darby

UPPER DARBY — Insert a young team into a deep league and there typically will be only one reliable route to safety: Toughen up on defense, create the occasional turnover, and survive the inevitable road tests.

That’s what Ridley did Friday night in a 17-0 victory in its Central League opener at Upper Darby. And that’s what coach Dave Wood confidently expects will be the Green Raiders’ ticket to contention.

“Defensively this week, compared to last week, we pursued to the football,” Wood said. “We were much better this week.”

The Raiders won their nonleague opener, 34-29, over visiting Central Bucks East. Even then, though, they knew they had a better and deeper defense than the score suggested. Friday, Ridley did not allow Upper Darby to complete a pass and won at some level of comfort despite only passing for 13 yards of its own.

A flubbed fake Upper Darby second-quarter punt put the Raiders in business at the Upper Darby 12, and Tahir Mills scored from there on the next play. A third-quarter fumble recovery at the Royals’ 36 eventually yielded a 27-yard Nick Volpone field goal. And with 1:31 to play, Paul Jackson jabbed into the passing lane, snared an interception and raced 26 yards for a touchdown, with Volpone’s second PAT essentially making it official.

Three key turnovers.

Three short fields.

Three converted opportunities.

One resounding message.

“We stopped the run game a lot and we had a lot of behind-the-line tackles,” said Jackson, who mixed in two sacks. “We just stopped them from going outside and made everything go inside. They couldn’t really go anywhere.”

Jackson and linebacker Nahaj Saleem were consistent impediments to the Upper Darby offense, along with, among others, freshman linebacker Connor Kelly.

Also, after the Raiders’ defense took some first-half jolts, starting quarterback John Heller shifted to linebacker, where he was a constant second-half presence. That shift was functional in large measure because freshman Ryan Carroll provided solid second-half quarterback stability.

“We’re a very proud defense,” Saleem said. “We don’t have a lot of seniors but we do get the job done. We’re 2-0, and I think our defense is going a long way.”

Despite the outcome, the Royals (0-2, 0-1) also came away proud of a defense led by linebackers Julien Laventure, Kamar Perlote and Horace Covenant that didn’t allow a touchdown drive.

“We were proud of how they fought,” Upper Darby coach Dave Barr said. “So many guys performed at the highest level that I’ve seen them, so we’re proud of them. Defensively, I thought our plan was awesome and the kids executed. And more than anything else, they competed. Offensively, we’re still trying to get our feet underneath us. It’s hard for people to see that there were positives offensively when you don’t score. But there were a lot of positives. A lot of guys really played well.”

Montez Ellis churned for a workmanlike 53 yards on 20 carries, and Dishon Lee provided 60 yards on three late carries for the Royals. Quarterback Donte Shaw added 47 rushing yards.

Mills rushed 20 times for 85 yards, including his touchdown, for the Green Raiders. And Stephen Gerace saved his eight carries and 26 yards for the fourth quarter, helping Ridley uncork a seven-minute drive to effectively leave Upper Darby out of time for a rally.

With that, the Raiders had a 2-0 record and a growing belief that they could be in for substantial success.

“We have a young football team,” Wood said. “We only have three seniors that are playing for us. But it is something we can build week-to-week on. No doubt about it.”

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