SKOWHEGAN — The Skowhegan Area High School football team had just spent two weeks of practice focusing on stopping the run. Yet here was Brewer, grinding out a long scoring drive to open its Pine Tree Conference Class B semifinal game against the Indians. When the Witches punched in a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead, it looked like the playoff script for Skowhegan was going to be the same as the regular season.

“Oh great. It’s going to be another shootout,” senior nose guard Kolby Coro thought.

The shootout didn’t happen. The Skowhegan defense that had allowed an average of 37 points per game, including 55 points or more four times, clamped down. That first quarter touchdown surrendered to Brewer was the only touchdown Skowhegan allowed in the Class B North playoffs. Last Friday, the Indians had their most impressive defensive showing of the season in a 23-0 win over Lawrence in the regional championship, allowing just 86 yards of offense to the Bulldogs, including minus-5 yards on the ground.

“They want to play well and they’re putting the time in with film study and the defensive game plan study, and the execution has showed,” Skowhegan coach Ryan Libby said.

Skowhegan’s newfound defensive intensity will need to continue in Saturday’s state championship game. Skowhegan (7-3) will face undefeated Marshwood (11-0) at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland. The Hawks were the first team to put 50 points on Skowhegan, in a 55-12 opening night win.

“Knowing the defensive plan, and knowing what we’re doing during the week helps us out a lot,” senior safety Sean Savage said. “We needed to win together, and not with 11 guys by themselves… It took time to piece it all together.”

Added junior linebacker Kobe Houghton: “We all came together, and trusting the man beside you to do what he knows how to do.”

The question is, why did it take most of the season for the Skowhegan defense to get to that level of trust? An offense that put up an average of 41 points per game carried Skowhegan into the playoffs. Now the defense has taken on the heavy lifting.

Ineligible players early, combined with injuries during the season, prevented Skowhegan from finding a rhythm defensively, Libby said. For example, Coro went down with a knee injury in a week three loss at Messalonskee, and that loss in the middle of the defensive hampered the Indians ability to stop the run.

“I just had to stand there and watch. It was awful. I had to stand there and watch everybody run right up the middle,” Coro said of his time recovering.

“I think it just took a while for it to gel and really realize we can make it. We can make it this far. Once they bought into that, we’ve been playing great as a unit,” Libby said.

After beating Mt. Blue in the regular season finale, Skowhegan knew it would be the top seed in the regional playoffs and had a bye into the semifinals. Without a quarterfinal opponent for which to prepare, the Indians had a week to focus practice on the fundamentals. Knowing the semifinal opponent would either be Brewer or Messalonskee, both strong running teams, Skowhegan worked on stopping the run.

“We knew we had to step up a lot. It could be our last game, really,” Coro said.

Even as the Witches marched down the field on their opening drive, Libby saw good things from his defense.

“I honestly felt OK. It at least took Brewer 11 or 12 plays to punch one in, and honestly that wasn’t the case early in the year. I knew we were going to get better. We were going to see some adjustments and we were going to fix some things,” Libby said.

Since that drive, Skowhegan has gone seven quarters without allowing a touchdown. Lawrence got inside the Skowhegan 20 yard line once, and that game after a turnover on a Bulldog punt extended the drive, and a pass interference penalty.

“We did it when it counted,” Houghton said.

Last week’s win over Lawrence was especially satisfying to the Indians. It not only came against one of their biggest rivals, it came against a team that put of 56 and 386 rushing yards on Skowhegan just a few weeks ago in a 58-56 Skowhegan win.

“It definitely didn’t hurt that some of Lawrence’s studs were dinged up and were out of the (rematch). For us, it was just desire,” Libby said. “Those boys came out and were flying to the football. They were calling out the play before the snap. They just outhustled and outhit Lawrence all night.”

The defensive improvement came at exactly the right time for Skowhegan, and with a rematch against the best team it faced all season looming, the Indians know it needs to continue Saturday night.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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