As the statistics show, big plays just don’t usually happen against the Greenwich High School football team’s defense.
Receivers getting wide open and running backs sprinting toward the end zone are rare occurances against the Cardinals, who have allowed only 13.4 points per game through their first 11 contests.
And that’s a big reason why game No. 12 for the Cardinals is a state semifinal-round matchup.
While Greenwich’s offense has been extremely tough to contend with all season, its defense has been downright stingy, enabling the team to reach the CIAC Class LL Tournament semifinals for the first time since it won the title in 2007. Greenwich hosts fourth-seeded South Windsor in the semifinal-round Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
The top-seeded Cardinals’ 27-6 win over eighth-seeded Fairfield Prep in the quarterfinals on Tuesday was another example of the defense’s dominance. The game marked the fourth time this fall the Cards held a team to single digits in points and the sixth time its limited the opposition to 15 or less.
Though scoring against Greenwich is an unfamiliar scenario, seeing the defense gang tackle running backs and tightly cover receivers is a common sight.
“Something we’ve preached all season is to be a blue-collar, gritty, physical defense,” Greenwich defensive coordinator Bryan Hocter said. “We try to get everyone rallying to the football on ever snap. Seeing our defense play so well is a credit to our kids. They have bought in and their football IQ is very high. They take great pride in playing defense.”
From the defensive line to the linebackers, to the secondary, Greenwich’s defense has excelled on each level.
“We’ve very athletic in the back end — secondary wise,” said Hocter, who previously coached at Staples and Stamford. “The most athletic kids on our team are playing in the back end. We have tough kids at linebacker and our defensive line has helped us control the line of scrimmage. They take great pride in not letting teams run the ball on us.”
Utilizing multiple fronts has often kept the opposition on the defensive.
“It’s easy for us to shift in and out of fronts, because we’ve been doing it for so long,” Hocter said. “This group is also very smart and they communicate well. When I talk to them from up top during a game, they will make suggestions to me saying ‘hey coach, if we run this blitz, this gap will open.’ They give me great feedback and then I can suggest what I want to do, based on what they tell me.”
Junior Gramoz Bici, a converted linebacker, leads the defensive line, and the team with 11 sacks and 87 tackles. Senior Tyler Blizzard, who also used to play linebacker, has registered eight sacks at defensive end.
“We felt we needed some speed and we needed a physical presence on the defensive line and it’s helped us establish the line of scrimmage each week,” Hocter said. “The design of our defense is we like to force everything east and west. Tyler Blizzard is 6-4 with long arms and great extension and Bici is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, kids on the team with a relentless motor.”
Senior Nick Mcintosh, one of the Cards’ captains and sophomore Edward Iuteri also help anchor the defensive line.
“We have put in a lot of time together and we have really built a bond on the defensive front,” said Mcintosh, who has 4.5 sacks on the season. “Each of us has learned how one another plays. We know each other’s strengths and weeknesses and how to complement each other.”
Junior linebacker Jack Feda has emerged as a premier defensive player this season, lining alongside senior captains Robert Lanni and Finbar Doyle. Feda was all over the field against Fairfield Prep, registering 16 tackles.
“Robbie and Finbar have showed me the way,” Feda said. “They have cultivated the linebacker corps and our defensive line has created holes for us up front. They take on double teams and we fill the holes.”
Lanni said each position on defense motivates each other.
“Our defense feeds off each other,” Lanni said. “If our defensive line makes a sack, our defensive backs will come up and give them high fives. Whatever we all do is connected.”
Indeed, the Cardinals’ defensive unit has high expectations every game.
“One of the huge keys to how we’ve played is our mentality,” Lanni said. “We know they can’t win if they can’t score. We pride ourselves on being a hard-nosed, blue-collar defense.”
Senior Jeremiah Harris, junior Charlie Ducret, Nick Veronis (junior), Ryan Raybuck (junior) and Hunter Cusimano (junior) are among those who have covered well in Cardinals’ secondary. Ducret has a team-best three interceptions.
“The thing about our secondary is that they want to tackle, they love making tackles and they are pretty gap sound,” Hocter said.
Greenwich coach John Marinelli has watched his defense become more sound each game.
“Week in and week out they are tougher and more physical,” Marinelli said. “They love to play and they want to be successful — they own their position and they own their craft. Between our pass rush getting to the quarterback and stopping the run and our guys playing at a high, physical level in the secondary, it’s been great to see.”
Marinelli appreciates the work Hocter and the defensive coaches have put in to develop the defense.
“This is year three and the defensive system is coming to fruition,” Marinelli said. “I’m excited to see year four, five, six.”
The Cardinals’ defense faces a huge test Sunday against a 10-1, run-oriented South Windsor squad, that lines up in multiple formations. Senior running back Julian Ibes leads the Bobcats with 1,232 rushing yards.
“South Windsor lines up in so many different formations, so we have to account for all the things they are trying to do,” Doyle said. “Our coaches will be up to the challenge in getting us prepared.
Each week our coaches go all out, looking at what the other offense is trying to do and they come to us every day with something new, setting us up with perfect adjustments.”