Swan Valley’s defense dominates Alma in TVC Central battle of unbeatens
ALMA — It was going to take a flawless performance.
And it was not that.
Even with their own gaudy 5-0 record and ranking — No. 4 in Division 4 in the latest Associated Press poll — the Alma Panthers knew that, in taking on the defending Division 5 runner-up, top-ranked Saginaw Swan Valley, they were going to have to be near-perfect to win.
Instead, the Vikings (5-0, 4-0 Tri-Valley Conference Central) forced three turnovers and held a powerful Panther offense to 31 points below its scoring average, winning 34-6 to clinch their seventh straight playoff berth.
“It was a great win today, especially over our rival Alma on their homecoming and everything. It was fun to run the tables tonight. Gotta give credit to my O-line, gave me time in pass protection,” said Swan Valley quarterback Alex Fries, who threw for 240 yards and a pair of touchdowns. “And our defense played outstanding. I don’t think our defense gets enough credit for what they do. I don’t think they’ve given up more than 20 points all season.”
In fact, the Vikings have only given up 22 points total in their last four contests, since allowing a season-high 20 points in a 36-point win over Frankenmuth.
This time, though, the Vikings were stymying an offense for Alma (5-1, 4-1 TVC Central) that had scored at least 33 points in each of its first five, and one that boasted a 1,000-yard rusher in Brec Alward, who came in having scored 16 touchdowns.
The senior finished with 109 yards and the Panthers’ lone score, but 68 of those yards came in one burst, when he split a seam in the Vikings defense and raced for a first-quarter touchdown. His other 19 carries netted 41 yards.
“It definitely helped to fire up the guys, put some fire in their bellies. (This was) definitely our most fired-up week, and it helped with the home crowd, especially with it being homecoming, with both of us being 5-0 going into it, you could just feel the hype around the community,” Alward said of the first-quarter run, which cut Swan Valley’s early lead to 7-6, but ended up being one of the few highlights for the Panthers.
“Their D(efensive) ends were definitely spying me, and so were all their linebackers. The holes just weren’t there today.”
It was a concerted effort by the Vikings, who added a few wrinkles to their defense for the matchup.
“We just trusted our system and the kids we have out there. Teams do have a hard time running on us, typically. We do a good job with our front seven. We know he’s excellent. We did dust off a little bit of a new defense for him in certain situations. He’s so good at gaining the edge, and setting you up inside and then getting outside on you, so we tried to take him from the outside in. And that worked pretty well for us — minus the one he took us through the middle,” said Swan Valley coach Kevin Gavenda, acknowledging that a defender may have been inadvertently picked off by an official on the play.
“I know. I know. At least that’s what was being screamed into my head (set). ‘He just got picked! He just got picked!’”
At that point, with a 7-6 score just five minutes in, and considering the firepower both offenses have, it could’ve been headed for a shootout. The Vikings answered the quick Alward score by driving 64 yards in nine plays to score on a Chase Mendoza 1-yard run to make it 14-6.
It never got to shootout stage, though.
Alma was on its way to answering, when Terryon Liddell — who had scored the game’s first touchdown on a 17-yard pass from Fries — stepped in front of a Drew Humm pass, and returned the interception 77 yards for a score and a 20-6 lead.
“That was tough. It was just a bubble screen out there, and we missed a block, and they’re athletes. Players make plays,” Alma coach Dan Falor said. “We knew going in we couldn’t afford to turn the ball over. We needed to be on the plus side of the turnover battle. We got one off them early, but just too many of those. We had to be near-perfect to beat Swan.”
The Panthers survived a fumble on the doorstep of their own end zone just before the half, turning Swan Valley over on downs, and keeping it a two-score game going into halftime, but just could never muster any more offense, even with a pair of long kick returns by sophomore Jacob Torrez.
“We thought we could put some points on the board against them. As good as they are, we have some pretty good athletes, too. But they’re just athletic and strong, and they just manhandled us up front,” said Falor, whose team had to replace all five linemen from a year ago. “We’re going to be outsized all year, and we’ve been — so far — able to overcome that. Their strength just ate us up, up front. Our guys are undersized, but they’re strong. So far, we’ve been able to handle all the other teams that are bigger than us, but not Swan. … Obviously we lack size. Our front line’s pretty small. Swan’s just strong and fast. They’ve got all the things you want in your team. … They proved they’re the best team in our league today. … We played a better team today.”
That size disparity showed up in the second half, in particular, as the Vikings took the second-half kickoff and drove the field for a second Fries-to-Liddell score, this one from 27 yards out. Mendoza added his second rushing touchdown, a 15-yarder, with just over a minute left in the third quarter to finish of the scoring.